Reproductive Messages In The Songs We Love : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture New research in psychology suggests that our favorite popular songs contain more messages about sex and reproduction than do less-favored songs. Is our evolved psyche at work here? Commentator Barbara J. King considers the evidence.
NPR logo Sex, Love And Evolution: Making Hits On The 'Billboard' Charts

Sex, Love And Evolution: Making Hits On The 'Billboard' Charts

Taylor Swift in New York at Madison Square Garden in December 2009, a year in which she became very familiar with the top of the Billboard charts. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images hide caption

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Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Taylor Swift in New York at Madison Square Garden in December 2009, a year in which she became very familiar with the top of the Billboard charts.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Now that it's December, "best-of-2011" lists for books, movies, and music are beginning to appear. If new research by evolutionary psychologists Dawn Hobbs and Gordon Gallup is on the right track, the songs selected as favorites of the year will be thick with lyrics about courtship, fidelity, mating, and parenting.

Or to put it plainly, about sex and reproduction.

That's because, Hobbs and Gallup believe, the human psyche evolved to pay keener attention to "embedded reproductive messages" than to messages about other subjects.

Hobbs and Gallup analyzed lyrics for 174 songs that made it into the top 10 on the Billboard charts for pop, country and R&B during the year 2009. First, 18 themes related to reproduction were identified, using a sample set of songs. These themes ranged from "genitalia" (exemplar: Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back") to "long-term mating strategies" (exemplar: Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek"). Then, using the defined themes, the 2009 songs were coded.

A few differences were found across the three genres — commitment and rejection popped up more in country music, for instance. Overall, 92 percent of the songs carried reproductive messages, with an average of 8.76 per song.

The key finding emerged once further analysis was done: the bestselling songs in all three genres included significantly more reproductive messages than those that did not make it into the top 10.

Hobbs and Gallup recognize that many factors beyond lyrics drive a song's popularity. They suggest, however, that we attend closely, even if subconsciously, to "evolutionarily relevant" lyrics. In fact, they conclude, "the ubiquitous presence of these reproductive themes is a reflection of evolved properties of the human psyche."

Might our love of certain song lyrics be a function of our current time and place, rather than our fixed human nature? No, say Hobbs and Gallup: when they expanded their sample to include art and opera songs back into the 16th century, the nature of reproductive messages in the lyrics held firm.

Threaded through Hobbs and Gallup's article is a tight coupling of biology and behavior. In their literature review section, Hobbs and Gallup cite a study by other scientists about the words most commonly found in romance-novel titles: love, bride, baby, man and marriage. In summarizing that study's results, Hobbs and Gallup write:

"Because the costs of reproduction are so much higher for women than men, because women have a strong vested interest in the other 50 percent of the genes being carried by their children, and because of their need for protection and provisioning, these themes have high reproductive relevance for females."

We women need protection and provisioning? Who says? There's no good evidence to suggest even that women back in prehistory were that helpless.

And is it really a biological imperative that pushes us to prefer one song over another? Sure, evolutionary success is about reproduction, but it is also about obtaining the food to fuel the making of that next generation. On Hobbs and Gallup's evolved-psyche logic, shouldn't our iPods be crammed with mammoth-spearing and berry-gathering songs?

Could it be that our modern ears seek songs about how we love — or want to love, or can't love, or aren't loved — for another reason? We humans continually rediscover, generation after generation as we create music together, what words bring our preoccupied hearts most vibrantly to life. Those are the words we sing and crave to hear.

Writing here about music, I feel the pull of my own best-loved songs (Springsteen and the E Street Band's; exemplar: "Land of Hope and Dreams," which immerses me in happiness no matter how many scores of times I watch on video or listen live).

Before I go rock out, I'll toss the question to the 13.7 community: What do you think, are we evolutionarily ensnared by the vocal drumbeat of sex and reproduction in the songs we favor?

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter.