This complicated and strange project began innocently enough when I decided to make a mix CD for my friend’s birthday and went searching for relevant songs. But ‘songs about being xx’ turns out not to be a very straightforward thing to search for and so after burning the CD I was left with a burning question: why had I found so few songs? In this blog post, I look at which ages get sung about and which don’t, and I present a comprehensive list of 189 songs that mention being a specific age. You can download the list here, and below, I go into more detail on three points:
1) How a surprisingly thorny measurement problem was resolved.
2) Some (younger) ages get mentioned in dozens of songs, other (older) ages are barely referenced. I examine these trends quantitatively and compare them to other trends, like how political stances change with age.
3) Quite frankly, it’s impossible to assemble a list like this and not notice that a lot of the lyrics involve older men talking about younger women in a – what seems to me at least – creepy way.
The list (available for download here) looks like this:
Assembling the List
The list is designed as an aid for those making playlists, and so I wanted it to contain only those songs that clearly mentioned an age. The intended listener should easily notice that their age just got a shout out. But that search criteria isn’t easy to implement. Knowing whether a song ‘clearly mentioned an age’ was just my subjective intuition – was there the risk of low inter-coder reliability if I asked anyone else to help? And I was definitely going to need help. There are quite a lot of songs out there and some of them are quite long too.
I worked on getting a more valid and reliable coding scheme together. First, I decided that there had to be an actual number in the lyrics or the title. Singing about ‘being a kid’ wasn’t enough, I needed a particular birthday to be mentioned. The next problem was what to do about songs that mentioned multiple ages. I decided that each song could only be on the list once, and each song would be listed under the most prominent age they mentioned. These judgment calls led to many difficult conversations and much bitterness. For example, ‘Gangstas Paradise’ by Coolio is listed under 24 for the lyric “I’m 23 now, will I live to see 24? I don’t know”, because I think he’s really singing about hoping to be 24, but there are compelling arguments for listing it under 23. I’m trying to work up the nerve to tweet Coolio directly and ask him which age he would say it’s mostly about, but I’m worried he might think that’s weird.
Anyway. With the codebook in place, data collection could begin. This involved listening to the radio and making a lot of notes. I also relentlessly pressured everyone I met into helping me. Thanks to my infectious enthusiasm/campaign of intimidation, I started getting more and more text messages from people who’d heard a song they thought I might be interested in. This data collection strategy is biased towards my own listening habits, and those of my friends, and so particular genres are over-represented. I tried to compensate for this by also searching online lyrics databases, but this probably wasn’t enough to completely rectify the problem.
But that’s how the list was assembled. Now it’s time to start looking at the results. First, let’s look at the overall frequency of songs by age.
The distribution is left-bounded at zero (the first song is “Letter to My Unborn” by 2pac), and is uni-modal. There is an average of 1.9 songs per year, but by age 19, you’ve already used up more than half the songs on the list. The most commonly mentioned age is 17. A few choice quotes sum up the pros and cons of that bewildering age:
- “I could dress in black and read Camus, smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth, yeah that would be a scream, if I was 17” (I Don’t Want To Get Over You – The Magnetic Fields)
- “I played video games in a drunken haze, I was 17 years young” (This Year – The Mountain Goats)
After that peak at 17, there are still a fair few songs until the late 20s, then it really starts to drop off, and after 40 they are extremely rare events. The first age without a song is 34, so if there are any 34yr old songwriters reading this, please fill that gap in the market and I’ll add you to the list immediately. The final entry on the list is “Ironic” by Alanis Morrissette, which mentions being 98.
Music and Age
Hopefully that gives you a flavor of the list. But I think there are a couple of interesting things here worth going over in more detail. For example, why is any age over 19 basically ‘past your peak’ in song terms? Why does being 17 inspire so much more music than being 27 or 37? Does your life just grow steadily less… inspiring… as you get older? Perhaps, MJ Hibbett seems to say. But that would be depressing. Another explanation would be that the music industry focuses on younger and younger acts because they’re easier to package, and so artists probably exist who are writing songs about being middle-aged, but they’re just not as easy to find. This would certainly help explain why the list is so unrepresentative in other ways. A third alternative explanation would be that lots of these songs come from counter-cultural genres of music, and people tend to move out of these counter-cultures when they get older and more involved in mainstream society (Jennings 1979, Strate et al 1989).
To check out this more political explanation, we can compare the list of songs to other variables measuring socialization. Since the list is US-centric, I use the 2006 World Values Survey from the US and graph five-year moving averages of three forms of political participation: joining a boycott, signing a petition, and voting in the last election. The two more conventional forms of participation (voting, and petitions) both rise almost linearly with age. The more unconventional form of participation (boycotts) remains fairly steady although it declines later in life. All three forms of participation are negatively correlated with song frequency, at -0.59 for turnout and songs, -0.72 for petitions and songs, and -0.20 for boycotts and songs, and the first two correlations are statistically significant at conventional levels.
The interesting point here is that the number of songs about being a particular age drops precisely at the age where people in theory become adults (18). For your 18th birthday present, you get the right to vote, but you lose your connection to popular music. From a political point of view these individuals are still young, but their days of being represented in popular music are done. I don’t think you’d want to read too much into the correlations between songs and forms of political participation – just because these things happen at the same time doesn’t mean they are linked – but it’s a nice illustration of the wide-reaching impact of turning 18.
Looking Closer at the Lyrics
One ironic thing here is that many of these songs are written by artists who are still touring decades later, singing songs about being 17 to a whole new cohort of 17 year olds. This brings me to the last point about this list: how creepy some of these songs are. This was a big deal recently, with ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke sparking controversy. When you peruse this list, take a look at the lyrics for ‘Stray Cat Blues’ by the Rolling Stones, or ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’ by Neil Sedaka. The characters narrating these songs come across as the creepiest creeps who ever crept. And there are others that are pretty gruesome too. “She’s Only 18” by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, “She’s 19 Years Old” by Buddy Guy, “Goin’ Blind” by Kiss… the list, quite literally, goes on. There are a couple of songs from a female perspective (“Fifteen” by Rilo Kiley, and “Fifteen (Nothing Happened)” by Standard Fare) but the vast majority are delivered by men. I think examining this fact is important. As much as I think the list contains a lot of nice birthday songs, it also contains some evidence of which attitudes towards women are present in popular culture. For wider debates about sexism in music, see here for a good discussion, written, incidentally, by one of the artists on the list.
Conclusion: I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Younger
I’d like to end by highlighting my favourite age, in terms of the songs. It was a tough call, with 19 having a few great anthems, and 23 also containing a few songs close to my heart, but the winner for me is 25. At that age, you’ve got “25” by Bomb The Music Industry, which I think grad students everywhere should be able to identify with, and “all the young dudes”, written by Bowie and which is a little bittersweet and is perfect for listening to as you stare out of the window. “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes is epic especially if you sing it with a bunch of other people walking down the street, and ‘Fly’ by Sugar Ray is also pretty recognizable. It’s a good age, musically.
Well. Many thanks to everyone who helped me collect these songs, I massively appreciated it and I couldn’t have done it without you, and I hope you’re happy with the way the list turned out, and I owe you all a mix cd. Pat Higgins in particular devoted many hours. I hope this spreadsheet is useful for people. Happy birthday(s).