When times get hard, country music gets happy

A new study reveals how honky-tonk hits respond to changing American fortunes

A new study reveals how honky-tonk hits respond to changing American fortunes.

When times get hard, pop songs get sadder: A 2009 study found that in difficult social and economic moments, Billboard pop songs of the year become “longer, slower, more lyrically meaningful, and in more sober keys.”

But when Coastal Carolina University researchers Jason T. Eastman and Terry F. Pettijohn II (who had also worked on the pop study) decided to investigate country hits instead, they found that the effect of hard times in that genre is nearly the opposite. Eastman and Pettijohn examined the Billboard Country Song of the Year from 1946 to 2008. Using what they call the General Hard Times Measure, or GHTM, which factors in such variables as the birth rate and suicide rate as well as unemployment and the consumer price index, they found that in tough times, country hits had more positive lyrics, faster tempos, and more major chords. The singers also tended to be older and were more likely to be female.

Why is country music different? It has a distinct audience, the researchers note. Unlike the broad middle-class listenership for pop music, country music “remains firmly grounded in the cultural traditions of poor, usually southern, rural, working-poor, and working-class Whites,” they write. They speculate that this group might be more likely to look for catharsis from their music—a moment of fast, happy, major-key escapism from tough times, rather than a somber reflection of them. Here, Jason Eastman points out some highlights and lowlights in country-music economics.

Click on the highlighted years to see commentary on and videos of the songs.

The General Hard Times Measure (GHTM) measures several socioecomic conditions of each period.

DATA: Eastman, J. T., & Pettijohn II, T. F. (2014, April 14). Gone Country: An Investigation of Billboard Country Songs of the Year Across Social and Economic Conditions in the United States. Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Chiqui Esteban/Globe Staff