Joss Newman

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All you need is love:
The values of the biggest selling singles

One wonders how common themes of power and achievement would be in the analysis of the biggest selling hip hop singles of the 21st century?

Music is a ubiquitous component of culture, it defines communities, generations and even eras. So, believing as we do that values are at the core of all communities, we wondered, do songs have underlying values? If so, what are the underlying values of popular music? Having finished documenting and analysing the values of the top 100 brands, we decided to explore this by running the top selling singles of the 21st century through our shared purpose framework.

The results


All of the songs in the sample had clear underlying values
The top value group was Community and relationships, with 40% of the top ten falling into this category. Community and relationships is all about the ‘preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact’, this therefore includes loving relationships. It probably comes as no surprise that a number of the top 10 selling singles of the 21st century are love songs, in fact, the number 1 song, WIll Young’s Evergreen falls firmly into this category. However, this is not to say that all love songs are all about preserving and enhancing personal relationships, on closer inspection some love songs may have very different underlying values. The number 2 song, Adele’s Someone Like You for example may deal with love, but ultimately it is about independence and so a point was awarded to the ‘Independence and innovation’ category.

In close second we had Pleasure and enjoyment, accounting for 30% of the top ten. Pleasure and enjoyment deals with ‘pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself’, and so party songs like ‘I gotta Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas and songs about sex such as ‘Sex On Fire’ by Kings of leon fall into this category.  With 20% of the songs in the top ten ultimately being about sex, it would imply that modern pop music is rather sexualised.

However it wasn’t all love, partying and sex, some music had a bigger mission. Social and environmental concern came in at a joint third position with 10% of the top ten falling into this category. Social and environmental concern can be defined as ‘understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature‘ and so charity song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ by Band Aid 20 is an example of this category.

While all three of these trends might be expected, Authority and wealth, dealing with ‘Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources’ made much less of an appearance than anticipated appearing only in the tongue-in-cheek song ‘It wasn’t me” by Shaggy ft Rikrok. There was also an unanticipated absence of achievement, relating to ‘personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards’. One wonders how common themes of power and achievement would be in the analysis of the biggest selling hip hop singles of the 21st century?

However, an absence that could perhaps be anticipated was the lack of music dealing with Conformity and obedience which deals with ‘restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms’. This is not to say that there is not any music that deals with these themes, a national anthem for example has underlying values of Conformity and obedience but few pop songs come to mind. One could however argue that buying mainstream pop music is a form of conformity in itself and so the music itself does not necessarily have to deal with these themes explicitly in order to appeal to values of Conformity and obedience.

So what are the values of the biggest selling singles of the 21st century? Well, primarily Community and relationships and Pleasure and enjoyment. This might suggest that these values are of particular importance to  the UK population, equally it might suggest that this is just what people want from their music, preferring to hear a song about love than conformity. One also starts to wonder how different genres might have different core values, perhaps rock music is about Independence and innovation, dance music about Pleasure and enjoyment and rap music about Authority and wealth? Either way, what clearly emerges is that these cultural artifacts that define communities have clear values at the core of them, just as we suspected.


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