Most decade-specific words in Billboard popular song titles, 1890-2014

If you find this small, you can right, click it, open in a new tab and zoom in (ctrl-middle mouse wheel, usually, or the plus key).

This was published in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Infographics of 2016. (That’s not an affiliate link or anything, I was paid a flat fee and get no more money if you buy it.)

The inspiration for this post came from my being too lazy to set my iPod to shuffle, and then noticing it played a bunch of songs in a row from the 1930s and ’40s that started with the letters “in” (“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “In the Still of the Night”, etc.) Naturally, being a data nerd, my first thought was to quantify the phenomenon.
The data comes not from Billboard itself, but from  www.bullfrogspond.com; I don’t know much about the data source, but it certainly looks thorough and painstaking, and up to date. If you’d like to know a little more about my methodology (like a quick explanation of the metric, “keyness”), see the code I used and/or see the actual songs that correspond to these words, head on over to my other, nerdier blog, prooffreaderplus.
Observations about the results:
  • The 2010s seem both more vulgar (“hell” and “fuck”) and more inclusive (“we” instead of the “you”, “ya” and “u” of the 1990s and 2000s).
  • The 1990s and 2000s were the decades of neologisms, with “U”, “Ya” and “Thang”. “U” was so popular it occurred twice (but see the note on decade-binning on prooffreaderplus.)
  • Fun! Lots of the decades can be made into intelligible five-word sentences. For example: “Hell Yeah, We Die, Fuck!” (2010s). “Ya Breathe It Like U” (2000s), “You Get Up, U Thang” (1990s), “Don’t Rock On Fire, Love” (1980s), “Sing, Moon, In A Swing” (1930s)
  • As anyone who listens to the radio in December knows, all the Christmas songs are oldies, and that shows in the results for the 1950s, with “Christmas” and “Red-nosed”.
  • You can track genres with the keywords: “Rag” (1910s), “Blues” (1920s), “Swing” (1930s), “Boogie”, “Polka” (1940s), “Mambo” (1950s), “Twist” (1960s), “Disco” (1970s), “Rock” (1970s and 1980s). After that, people realized you don’t have to actually name the genre in the song title, people can figure it out by listening. (N’Sync must not have gotten that memo for 2001’s “Pop”.)
  • Who knew Billboard song rankings went back to the 1890s? It was a surprise to me. That fact, and the fact that there are fewer songs then, but not so few as to be negligible, influenced a lot of the choices into how I presented this data (read more here if you want). But those early decades seem to be more focused on first names (“Michael”, “Reuben”, “Casey”), familial relationships (“Uncle”, “Mammy”)
  • The first two decades — the oldest ones compared to now — both have the keyword “old”. I blame time travel.
  • I find it interesting that there are short, common articles, adverbs, prepositions and pronouncs in the list; these have a higher bar for keyness, since they’re present in other decades: “When” (1900s), “A” (1930s), “In” (1930s), “On” (1980s), “Up” (1990s), “It” (2000s)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hunt through my iPod to see if there’s even one song with “gems” in the title; it seems to have been popular in the 1910s.

12 Replies to “Most decade-specific words in Billboard popular song titles, 1890-2014”

  1. How did you go about matching lyrics to the billboard indexes? Did you have data with a 1:1 match so you could scrape automatically or was it a (more) manual process?

  2. I didn't use lyrics, just song titles, which were part of the Billboard database I downloaded. That would have been a more complicated project… but I like it, now you've got me thinking!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.