The Infectious Nature of Pop Music

I was in town with my dad and we felt like having a quick bite to eat. Subway? Nah, I had it yesterday. Gregg’s? Not in the mood. McDonalds? On the boycott list. So we went to a Chinese fast food place, and as soon as we entered, I heard this annoying bass-line I could never forget. “Fancy”, Iggy Azalea’s greatest new hit was playing. Again. I began to wonder why I was hearing this song so often.

Whilst tucking in, I googled “Music and emotions”, to see whether these songs were playing because they were popular amongst people as they made people feel good, or whether these songs were playing because radio stations were paid to.

After skim reading a 2011 study that used MRI scans to investigate music and its emotional attachment, I learnt that the emotional centres of the brain, including the reward centres, are more active when people hear songs they’ve heard before. In fact, those brain areas are even more active when people hear unfamiliar songs that suit their music taste. The research also suggests that repeated exposure is a much more effective way of getting the general public to like a song than writing one that suits their taste.

That’s probably why on your 11th unintentional listen of “Blurred Lines”, you thought it really isn’t that bad. Because we’re exposed to that tune for so long, we are essentially tricked into changing our initial perception of the song. This is basically the musical version of Stockholm Syndrome, which if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the phenomenon in which victims of kidnapping or imprisonment may begin to sympathize with their captors over time.

I often questioned whether because a song was being played everywhere it meant it was popular amongst most people. Record labels basically used to pay radio stations up until the 80s to keep playing their songs. To do this directly is illegal, but it doesn’t mean this didn’t happen. This “payola” still happens today, but obviously isn’t so blatant. Instead, the major labels pay independent promoters to “incentivize”, or bribe radio stations to play their songs, or create cap programmes where executives vote on a selection of songs. Under a cap programme called “On The Verge”, Iggy Azalea won the vote and “Fancy” had to be played on American radio stations listed under the programme for at least 150 times for six consecutive weeks.

This Stockholm Syndrome of music is also apparent in culture too, and it’s called the “mere exposure effect”, and applies to anything such as shapes, songs and people. In a study by Robert Zajonc, who actually coined the term, participants reported liking songs more the second and third times they were exposed to them. This same response occurred even when participants weren’t aware of any of those songs. It concluded that people can easily mistake the fluidity of their ability to identify and fully comprehend a song with actually liking it. So basically, when a song gets stuck in your head, it transitions from being the most annoying thing in the world, to being the best song you ever heard. The perfect example of this is “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas.

Another great way the industry makes us fall in love with their songs is by forcing it on us so much that we catch it in a moment where we’re experiencing great happiness, and so that song becomes associated with those good memories to you and your friends.  If someone hears Ariana Grande’s smash hit “Problem” every time they’re out with their friends, they will likely start to associate it with good times and good feelings regardless of the song’s actual lyrics. Songs that the industry expose us to constantly, have a far better shot at becoming popular than ones without the machine behind them.

The industry knows that there are many social and cognitive factors that define humans well, and they manipulate them constantly. But even amidst all that science and big business manoeuvring, there’s one truth: If you play a really bad song too much, people will figure it out for themselves. Just search on twitter  for “if I hear Fancy one more time”.

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