When The Police recorded their hit rock song “Every Breath You Take,” it’s unlikely they were thinking about reproductive messaging, or even knew what it was.
But according to Gordon Gallup, a professor of psychology at the University at Albany, “Every Breath You Take,” with its memorable lyrics about a stalker who is watching “every move you make,” is full of “reproductive themes” — a fancy term for sexual content.
According to a recent study conducted by Gallup and graduate student Dawn Hobbs, over 90 percent of the top 10 songs on the 2009 Billboard charts contained references to sexual intercourse, body parts, promiscuity, infidelity, sex appeal and rejection. Each song contained an average of more than 10 different reproductive messages.
Gallup and Hobbs also studied top 10 songs for the years 1959-2009, and found that the amount of sexual content was comparable. They also looked at opera arias and art songs from several hundred years ago, and got the same result.
“The newer songs are more explicit, but the categories we developed fit the older songs to a ‘T’,” Gallup said. “Rather than a flash in the pan, reproductive messaging appears to be an enduring feature of song lyrics.”
In other words, the opera stars of yesteryear were also singing about sex and body parts, among other things.
Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist, said that evolution is about the perpetuation of genes and whether certain genes will find their way into the next generation, rather than the survival of the fittest.
“Evolution is about reproductive competition, not the competition for scarce resources,” Gallup said. “With that in mind, we examined song lyrics for reproductive messages. We were aware that songs contain embedded reproductive messages, but we had no idea how many references to reproduction they would contain.”
Gallup and Hobbs looked at three genres: pop, country and rhythm and blues, which includes hip-hop.
The found that country music contained an average of 5.9 different reproductive messages per song, with the most frequent being about parenting, commitment, rejection and fidelity. Pop songs contained 8.7 reproductive references per song, with sex appeal, reputation, “short-term mating strategies” and fidelity being among the most common. R&B songs contained 16.7 reproductive messages per song, with sex appeal, sex acts, resources and status being among the most common.
Across all three genres, the most popular songs contained significantly more reproductive messages than those that failed to rise higher in the charts, Gallup said.
As a result, songs about sex make more money, which probably inspires musicians to write more songs about sex.
Songs cited in the study include “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot, “Cheek to Cheek” by Irving Berlin, “Love Game” by Lady Gaga and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye.
Gallup said that the results of his study are consistent with other studies that have looked at the content of front-page news stories and the titles of romance novels.
Those studies have also found that a high percentage of front-page stories and titles have “evolutionary significance,” meaning that they contain references to sex and violence.
“Contemporary culture is saturated with subtle and not-so-subtle reproductive messaging,” Gallup said.
Gallup’s and Hobbs’ study, titled “Songs as a medium for embedded reproductive messages,” is published in the current edition of the journal Evolutionary Psychology.
In the paper, they write that the “adaptive value of music eluded scientists for a long time,” but that Charles Darwin suggests that “music may have evolved as a form of courtship display by means of sexual selection.”
Song lyrics is a new area of research for Gallup. But he has also studied the sound of singers’ voices, to see whether singers with certain types of voices are more likely to have hit songs.
Gallup has done a lot of research on the human voice, and said that a person’s voice contains a lot of information about personality and experience, including information about how many sexual partners a person has had, and how likely they are to cheat on a partner.
Gallup said he likes music. “I listen to pop on the radio.”
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