It's true: sex sells. But could the lyrics to hit songs contain more embedded references to reproductive success – and the kinds of problems our ancestors would have faced to attain it? Researchers at SUNY Albany have coded the lyrics to 174 songs from pop, country, and R&B. The results may begin to tell us why certain songs are more popular than others. Here's an excerpt from Jesse Bering's blog post on the study in Scientific American:

Laid bare on a stark piece of paper, removed entirely from their imposing instrumentals, strong emotions, and intimidating vocal talent, most song lyrics have all the literary force of a puff of flatulence. Once they’re quarantined like this in atonal print—and when you actually bother to read them in a quiet room—some of the most popular song lyrics read like half-dried beads of sweat fallen from a hallucinating eighth-grader’s forehead.

There are exceptions, of course. Scholars hail Bob Dylan’s lyrics as works of poetic genius, and the same applies to that of other songwriters as well. (I think Beck ranks among the greatest surrealists, myself.) But when we consider how some of the more potent melodic memes are at once gratuitously bad yet capable of rooting remarkably deep into our collective consciousness—is anyone not familiar with that most enduring priapic paean, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon”?—the utter banality of most song lyrics becomes that much more curious.

Don’t just take my word for it. Let’s hear from the “Lyrical Gangster” himself, the Jamaican reggae singer Ini Kamoze, whose dancehall hit, “Here Comes the Hotstepper” soared to the top of the US and British charts back in 1994. And that song went a little something like this:

Juice like a strawberry
Money to burn baby, all the time
Cut to fade is me
Fade to cut is she
Come juggle with me, I say every time
Here comes the hotstepper, murderer
I’m the lyrical gangster, murderer
Dial emergency number, murderer
Still love you like that, murderer

Astonishing. It’s as though his words go straight to my soul—if my soul were that of a mentally ill, homicidal circus clown. (If anyone out there happens to know why, exactly, Kamoze is inviting people to juggle with him, I’d be very keen to hear.) I don’t mean to pick on this particular performer. In fact, that any given song becomes a #1 hit says a lot more about the consuming public than it does the artist...

...Perhaps, however, there is more logic in lyric choice than even writers and singers themselves are aware. After boiling songs down to the weird literary nuclei of lyrics, scientists examining such “juice like a strawberry” coded language have discovered no less than the very essence of human nature. At least, that’s the intriguing claim being made by SUNY-Albany investigators Dawn Hobbs and Gordon Gallup in an article soon to be published in Evolutionary Psychology.

In trying to decode the hidden messages in song lyrics, these investigators follow in the empirical footsteps of University of Guelph psychologists Hank Davis and Lyndsay McLeod, who in 2003 sampled a random selection of front-page newspaper stories from eight different cultures going back some three centuries. Davis and McLeod discovered that the hallmark of sensational news—what makes something particularly alluring to any readership—is its relevance to reproductive success in the ancestral past. Most high-profile, front-page stories dealt with things such as altruism, reputation, cheaters, violence, sex, and the treatment of offspring. In other words, argued these scientists, what whets our appetites in the social domain today are the very same gossipy topics of conversation that the first humans were probably gabbing about 150,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa.

Read more of Bering's article in Scientific American.
See Steve Platek's interview with Dr. Gordon Gallup, one of the co-authors of the study.
Read the original study by Hobbs and Gallup in Evolutionary Psychology.