The music industry loves love. The latest project from Nickolay Lamm–a Pittsburgh-based digital artist whose previous work has included visualizing Wi-Fi, the body of the average American and the future face of humanity–tracked the popularity of certain keywords across more than 50 years of the Billboard charts. One of the most consistent words? Love.
Lamm’s “History of Music” project details every song on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 list since 1960. Each colored rectangle in the visualization represents one song, and each column represents one year of the list, organized from the top of the graph to the bottom starting with the year’s most popular song. The redder the rectangle is, the more times that word popped up in the song’s lyrics. Blue means it wasn’t mentioned at all. You can see not only how often a word has appeared in pop music over the decades, but what percentage of each song was dedicated to that word.
Interestingly, “love” seems to take a dip after around 2000, still appearing consistently on the charts, but not as often as it was in the ’60s. We’re either bored of love songs, or we’re finding a lot of synonyms for the big “L.”
Other oft-repeated favorites across the years? “Baby,” “lonely” and “home.” “Money,” too, pops up fairly frequently, but sex and curse words like “ass” have only recently made it onto the charts, starting around the ’90s.
Lamm also looked at the discrepancies between gender mentions: Artists talk about “girls” all the time, but only rarely about “boys.” An hint of the objectification of women in music? Probably. But I would love to see how the landscape might change if Lamm looked at “men” and “women,” too. For the most part we find it socially acceptable to call women of any age “girls,” but it’s not as common to refer to an adult man as a “boy.” But I guess the breakdown of sexy boys in pop music will have to wait for another day.
In many ways, music has changed radically in the past five decades. We’ve traded Elvis Presley for Macklemore and Robin Thicke, who came in at the top of last year’s Billboard list. Yet when we look at it from a broader view, as Lamm’s project does, we’re still pretty much singing the same old love songs.