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Columns

May 1, 2011

Song lyrics are an odd measure of attitudes

It was the third rainy weekend in a row, and I was scrolling through comments to a post by MSNBC blogger Melissa Dahl about a new study linking song lyrics to cultural changes.

After performing a computer analysis of lyrics to more than three decades of popular songs, researchers found a trend toward narcissism and hostility, even after controlling for genre to prevent the growing popularity of rap and hip-hop from skewing the results.

In top-10 songs from 1980 to 2007, the words “I” and “me” appeared more frequently, along with “anger-related” words, while the use of the words “we” and ”us” and the expression of positive emotions declined. The study was published in the March issue of the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Can song lyrics accurately document cultural changes, and are Americans more narcissistic and angry? The 178 comments to the article touched on these questions, but the discussion degenerated into a debate over who is more self-centered, liberals or conservatives.

Looking out the window, my thoughts turned to songs about rain. It has certainly been a rich topic in popular music, from “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which topped the Billboard charts in 1970, to more recent hits, like “A Year Without Rain” by Selena Gomez.

But how, I wondered, do people feel about rain? Have our attitudes changed since Karen Carpenter complained about “Rainy Days and Mondays” in 1971? I couldn’t do a scientific study, of course, but a quick search on lyrics.com yielded hundreds of songs, old and new, with the word “rain,” “rainy” or “raining” in the title.

These songs reflect a range of attitudes, from, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” to “I Love a Rainy Night.” There are songs about doing things in the rain _ singing, kissing, walking, crying, standing _ and songs that urge rain-related action: “Let it Rain,” “Make it Rain,” “Forget About the Rain,” “Bring on the Rain,” “Listen to the Rain,” “Blame it on the Rain,” “Come in From the Rain.”

Rain apparently comes in many varieties, including “Red Rain,” “Black Rain,” “Steel Rain,” “Healing Rain,” “Sweet Rain,” “Summer Rain,” “Monday Rain,” “November Rain,” “Early Morning Rain,” ”Alabama Rain,” “Kentucky Rain,” “Louisiana Rain” and “Georgia Rain.”

Self-absorbed rain songs have been around for a while. “There’s just been too much rain, down on me,” Carole King sang back in 1971. And what could be sadder than “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” first recorded by country singer Roy Acuff in 1945, and later by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley?

Happy rain songs also transcend generations, from Neil Sedaka’s 1974 hit “Laughter in the Rain” (“Ooh how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside”) to Clint Black’s 1996 country chart-topper “Like the Rain” (“I never liked the rain until I walked through it with you”).

Of course, for every song that’s actually about rain, there’s at least one more where the rain is metaphorical, from the uplifting (“I Made it Through the Rain” by Barry Manilow) to the depressing (“I Wish it Would Rain Down on Me” by Phil Collins) to the poetic (Tim McGraw’s “She’s my kind of rain, like love in a drunken sky.”)

Then there are the songs where rain is used in an expression, from Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in 1964 to Adele’s “Right as Rain” in 2008.

What’s your favorite rain song? I can’t choose just one. My favorite sad rain songs are the Prince classic, “Purple Rain,” and “Rain” by Patty Griffin. As for happy songs, one of my favorites _ and one of the most popular rain-related songs in recent years _ doesn’t have the word “rain” in the title.

Originally released by Rihanna with Jay-Z in 2007, “Umbrella” has been covered by everyone from OneRepublic to Sara Bareilles to Train to the cast of the TV show “Glee,” in a mash-up with the Gene Kelly classic “Singing in the Rain” that features actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Consider the lyrics:

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