All About That Bass: The Psychology Of Sexy Song Lyrics

"Yeah, my momma she told me don't worry about your size; She says, boys they like a little more booty to hold at night." - Lyrics from "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor

"He keep telling me it's real, that he love my sex appeal; Say he don't like 'em boney, he want something he can grab" - Lyrics from "Anaconda" by Nikki Minaj

Two of the biggest songs on the charts right now feature lyrics that celebrate the sex appeal of curvy women: Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass and Nikki Minaj's Anaconda (which samples Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back). Some people might attribute the popularity of these songs to their catchy beats, while others might point to their accompanying must-watch music videos, each of which has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. However, at least a few psychologists might argue that these songs resonate with us on a deeper level because they appeal to human's evolved mating strategies.

Some scientists believe that men and women evolved fundamentally different approaches to mating in order to maximize the odds of passing along their genes to future generations. They theorize that men evolved a tendency to pursue short-term sexual encounters with young and curvy women. Why? Because young women tend to be more fertile and curvy women (i.e., those with an hourglass figure) tend to have an easier time during childbirth. In contrast, it is theorized that women evolved a tendency to hold out for longer-term relationships with reliable men who can provide resources to care for any offspring produced [1]. Many studies have found support for the idea that men and women are attracted to different things in their sexual partners and that these preferences generally fall along the lines predicted by this theory (of course, keep in mind that we're talking about general trends here. Not all men and women fit these predictions, and there are other ways of explaining the results).

In a recent article published in Evolutionary Psychology, two scientists argued that these evolved mating tendencies are so deeply ingrained that we have even developed a preference for popular media that reinforces them. For instance, in one study, every song that made it into Billboard’s Top Ten lists for Pop, R&B, and Country in 2009 was analyzed for content [2]. A total of 174 songs were included, and the lyrics of each song were coded by two independent raters to determine the extent to which they revealed “reproductive messages” (e.g., references to genitalia, hook-ups, long-term relationships, money, etc.). Fully 92% of the songs contained at least one such message. Although the vast majority of the songs in each genre contained reproductive themes, R&B songs had the most. Likewise, the nature of the references differed significantly across musical categories. For instance, references to status, resources, and sex appeal were most common in R&B and pop music. In contrast, references to commitment and faithfulness were most common in country music.

Follow-up studies revealed that the most popular songs (i.e., those that went to #1) included the highest number of references to reproduction. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that this does not appear to be a new trend. Reproduction references were common across all musical genres dating back several decades, and they were even evident in the most popular operas traced back hundreds of years.  

These results suggest that sex always has and always will sell in the world of music. But is it because we are truly driven to prefer songs that feature reproductive messages and that reinforce our theorized mating strategies and preferences? Not necessarily. It could very well be that people are attracted to these songs for reasons other than the lyrics (e.g., maybe it can be traced to the physical or vocal appeal of the singers themselves). Plus, if we are driven to prefer media that contains evolutionary themes, then why aren't there a lot of songs on the charts about fulfilling other survival needs? In short, we can’t say for sure why sexy songs are so popular, but regardless of the reason, if you’re trying to write or record the next big hit, it might not hurt to throw in a reproductive message...or ten.

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[1] Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.

[2] Hobbs, D. R., & Gallup, G. G. (2011). Songs as a medium for embedded reproductive messages. Evolutionary Psychology, 9, 390-416.

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