My NC State colleagues David Henard and Christian Rossetti just had a paper come out in the Journal of Advertising Research that is getting international attention. Titled "All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music's Number One Hits," the paper has been featured in stories not just in the US, but also in the UK and Australia.
Henard and Rossetti find that the theme of popular hits has changed over the last 50 years. Rebellion was in the air in the 1960s and 1970s (I know, I was there -- "Tear Down the Wall," as the Jefferson Airplane sang). Today themes revolve more along desperation and inspiration (e.g., "Happy"), perhaps a reaction to 9/11.
Henard and Rossetti focus on number one hits. It would be interesting to see if the results could be generalized; some of the most enduring music never hits the top of the charts (ask Neil Young who has had one number one in his lifetime) Alternate acts like Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear have been used by Bushmills and Volkswagen to push product. I am guessing rebellion is pretty strong no longer how you slice the 1960s data; I also am guessing romance has enduring power across the ages from Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" to Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home."
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