Why do some songs succeed and others fail? Some researchers believe that a key factor is their involvement with our personal universe: if they foster feelings of social connection, they get the approval of the public; if not, they are ignored and forgotten. If that were true, songs that fit that personal pattern should fall more into the public’s favor and be downloaded more frequently. That is something that has been studied recently.
Many of the most successful songs are about “you”, their protagonist is “you”. In Discover Magazine, Neuroskeptic recalled Whitney Houston and her “I Will Always Love You,” the Beatles and their “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and Elton John and his “Your Song”. It could have been the same in Spanish and you don’t have to look far. My admired Rosalía and her “Yo por ti, tú por mí”, Rodrigo Amarante’s “Tuyo” which is on the soundtrack of the series Narcos, Manu Chao’s “Me gustas tú”, Amaral’s “Sin ti no soy nada” or the master Sabina and his “Así estoy yo sin ti”.
Science explains those hits. A study 1 published in the journal Psychological Science and conducted by Grant Packard and Jonah Berger, from Yale and Pennsylvania universities respectively, has shown that there is a correspondence between the popularity of a song and the number of times “you” and related words (i.e., your, yours, and yourself) are said in the lyrics.
The study analyzed the lyrics of more than 4,200 English-language songs released between 2014 and 2016 that had made it to the Billboard Top 50 and another 2,921 that had not been hits and acted as controls. These rankings collect the downloads of more than 90% of the songs based on paid servers (e.g., Apple iTunes, Google Play and Spotify) and this system allowed to collect the data of these downloads, corresponding to 1736 songs from 1187 artists. The controls looked for songs that were as similar as possible to the hits (same artist and album) but had not succeeded. They managed to match 1735 songs from 1879 that were in those top 50 hits. Second, they counted how many second-person pronouns appeared in the lyrics of those successful and non-successful songs, and third, they ran a linear regression analysis to examine the relationship between the number of second-person pronouns and the song’s results.
The pair of researchers found that the songs that stood out on the list tended to contain a greater density of “you” or related words. This was still true after analyzing variables such as the music genre (Christian music, country, dance, rock, pop, rap and rhythm and blues), the artist (whether successful artists use more of the second person’s pronoun), whether the songs were programmed more on the radio, whether they focused on certain themes, such as love or dance, and whether these themes were responsible for the success rather than the words with “you” or whether it was due to another linguistic characteristic or word widely used in the songs. Finally, they controlled for other factors such as how many genres the song was referenced in, which quarter it appeared in the rankings, and how many times it appeared in the lists of favorite songs. After including all these controls, the effect of second-person pronouns was still in effect: more «you» means more success.
The main function of these words is to indicate the focus of attention, that the speaker is addressing a person or his/her things. Neither the first person nor the third person meet this condition. The authors of this research considered that although the speaker and the listener of a conversation pay little conscious attention to these second-person pronouns, these words are responsible for the success of a cultural product such as a song. They argue that there can be two mechanisms: addressing the audience directly as the subject “You’re killing me gently” or, secondly, the words with “you” can contain rules or imperatives that are expressed generically “do what you have to do” or addressed to yourself “you have to lose weight”.
Moreover, the correlation between popularity and “you”content was only more powerful when “you” was the object of a sentence (“It’s for you,” by The Beatles) than when it was the subject (“You are my sunshine” by Johnny Cash). The authors of the article consider these lyrics to be particularly successful because they help listeners project that lyric onto the people in their own lives (2). When Miguel Bosé sings “Te amaré” people don’t think that Miguel Bosé loves you, but they translate those words into their own experience, you are the one who loves the person you are thinking about. “You” is an enormously flexible pronoun and can refer to any person, particularly one close to us or one who occupies our heart. Actually, our brain, of course.
The pronoun of the second person, in Neuroskeptic’s opinion, instead of putting the listener in the skin of the singer or making him see the author’s own perspective (for example, what the members of Mocedades would think when they sang “Eres tú”, seems to encourage the audience to imagine that story in relation to someone in their own lives, to become themselves and that other person the protagonists of the song. That makes the lyrics of that song more relevant and makes people like it more.
In that sense, the second person pronouns favor what has been called the narrative transport, but more than being transported to someone else’s narrative, people get a new way of looking at their own life. The lyrics of a song encourage people to revive some aspect of their own lives through the world created by the author of that song’s lyrics.
In the continuation of that study, the two researchers have accumulated complementary evidence of the power of lyrics centered on the “you. In particular, they conducted two experimental studies where they showed that modifying a song’s lyrics and adding more “you”, “you” or “yours” made people like it more. On the other hand, if the modification was to replace the “you” with “he” or “she” (third person singular), the rating of that song would drop. These two experiments suggest that the relationship was real, that there is a cause-and-effect association and that it was not a coincidence.
Neuroskeptic proposed to check if the conclusions of the study were still valid in other languages and perhaps it would also be interesting to see if they are fulfilled when there is a second person with formal and informal variants (“usted” and “tu”, for example). It would be a way to be able to check the theory that we like songs because we transfer them to our own life and to our own interpersonal relationships. If that song tells you about someone you address as “usted”, the logical thing is that it doesn’t make you think about your girlfriend, even though you know, as the bullfighter Rafael “El Gallo” supposedly said when he was introduced to the philosopher Ortega y Gassett and told that his job was to think, there are people “pa tó” (for anything).