Not-so-Fab Fifty – Frank McNally on a gloomy trend in half a century of pop music

A general drift toward lyrical melancholy

The lyrics of pop music have become “angrier, gloomier, and simpler” than they were 50 years ago, according to a survey of conducted by the University of Innsbruck.

As reported in the London Times, researchers studied “emotional descriptors” in 12,000 English-language songs from the past five decades and found “a downward trend in happiness and brightness and a slight upward trend in sadness”.

I’ll leave modern songs aside for now, now being an expert. But, right enough, when I tried to recall the big hits from my early-1970s childhood, it was mostly happy ones – like sunny days – that sprang to mind.

Weather and optimism combined in Bobby Goldsboro’s Hello Summertime, for example, with its eulogy for “birds and bees and all the flowers and trees/fishes on the line.”

Then there was Minnie Ripperton, trilling ecstatically like a songbird, in “Lovin’ You”. And I also thought of The New Seekers’ famously romantic ambition to “teach the world to sing” (and later, as adapted for a TV ad, to buy it a Coke).

A blissful era, to be sure. Or was it?

***

Then I looked up the charts for this week in 1974 to see what had been Number 1 and remembered it was a thing called “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks.

A catchy number about terminal illness, in which the narrator is saying goodbye to all his friends, that – I have only now learned – was adapted from a 1961 ballad by Jacques Brel called Le Moribond (“The Dying Man”).

Amazingly, Jacks rewrote the original to be more cheerful, although the result ranked at number five in a 2006 CNN poll to find “the worst pop songs ever recorded” (despite which, it was still bankable enough in 1995 for Westlife to rerecord it and top the charts again).

In 1974, as I have also just been reminded, Seasons in the Sun was preceded as UK Number 1 by Billy Don’t Be A Hero, an equally cheerful ballad about a soldier throwing his life away on the battlefield despite the pleas of his girlfriend.

As for Jacks’s B-side, Put the Bone In, a song that had mercifully escaped me until now, that, apparently, was “an original composition about burying a deceased pet dog”.

***

No doubt the Austrian researchers are right about the general trend toward lyrical gloominess over the past 50 years.

And yet I’m also reminded of the career trajectory of Leonard Cohen, a master of gloom in the 1970s who seemed to become progressively happier as he aged, especially after a lucky break in which his manager stole his life savings in 2005, propelling him back in the road in his mid-70s for one of the greatest comebacks in music history.

His stage patter in later years included a self-deprecating summary of his various attempts to treat the condition known as life.

“I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin,” he would tell audiences in a voice deeper than the grave. “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and the religions,” he would add. Yet somehow, he always concluded to laughter, “cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

***

In other news, I see that the Financial Times columnist Jo Ellison had made the latest issue of Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner for writing this about a new TV series, Expats: “Nicole Kidman stars, as she so often does these days, as an etiolated martyr of anhedonia.”

Whatever about the phrase being pseudointellectual – the usual qualification for inclusion in that slot, I must admit it forced me to look up not just one word, but two, in the dictionary.

Anhedonia, it had struck me in passing, sounded like a mountainous region of Turkey. But as I now know, it’s the inability or unwillingness to find pleasure in anything: the opposite of what hedonists do.

As for etiolated, that means “pale and weak” and derives for metaphorical human use from the bleaching of green plants deprived of light. I’ve never thought of Nicole Kidman as a shrinking violet or otherwise lacking in vigour. But perhaps the gloominess of modern pop music has taken a toll on her too.

***

The American humour columnist Dave Barry, who drew much of his material from the everyday comedy that is Florida, used to have a recurring joke wherein he would reflect on a weird phrase that had arisen in local news stories and then suggest it would be “a good name for a rock band”.

Examples included “The Pig-stinging Jellyfish”, “Flaming Squirrels”, “Crab Shrapnel, “The Cotton-eating Moths of Australia”, and many more.

I think I may have another one for him. With apologies to Nicole Kidman, but in keeping with the gloomy trend of popular music as confirmed by the scholars at the University of Innsbruck, I suggest that The Etiolated Martyrs of Anhedonia would be a truly great name for a rock band.

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