Home » Psychology in the Arts & Media

Psychology in the Arts & Media

Psychology in Popular Music

Popular songs are an art form that sets to music short poems or narratives dealing mostly with the positive and negative feelings associated with romantic relationships. Often the lyrics of songs go beyond stories and espouse philosophies of life, psychological advice, or commentary on some aspect of human nature.  The observations and reflections in pop songs are sometimes psychologically sound, but sometimes they are based on scientifically discredited ideas or erroneous logic. Regardless of the wisdom or validity of the ideas expressed in the lyrics, songs sometimes make a statement about extant political and societal norms, values, world views, and conflicts, especially from the perspective of young people.

As someone who enjoys all kinds of music, I often listen for the psych0logical truths or fallacies in pop song lyrics. Sometimes a song simply raises questions about some aspect of human behavior that psychology has no answer for, but sometimes the advice is quite profound and helpful. Over the years, I have collected a number of pop songs that strike me as being psychologically provocative. When discussing an issue in class or in a workshop, often a song is a fun way of introducing the topic and starting a discussion.

Here is my current list of pop songs that I find psychologically provocative and that raise questions about human nature.  I’ve included the concepts in psychology to which the song most clearly relates, and some of my questions about and reactions to the song. Where available, I have included YouTube URLs that play the song and include the lyrics. Songs are listed alphabetically by title.

I invite your comments and suggestions for additions to this list.

1. “Alone Again Naturally” — Gilbert O’Sullivan —

  • Existential anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Suicide

Song raises questions about the meaning of existence, existence of God, and suggests the inevitability of loneliness and depression when we lose important people in our lives, especially significant others and our parents.

2. “Am I Fool Number One?” — Brenda Lee —

  • Victimization
  • Social roles

The singer concludes that she is the biggest fool of all because she would fall in love with the guy all over again. What determines whether we learn from our experiences or just fall back into the same failed, foolish patterns of behavior, e.g., being a victim?

3. “Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself)” — Eric Clapton —

  • Defense mechanism of projection

Projection occurs when we accuse someone of the very behavior we are guilty of. This song describes the mechanism well.

4. “Born to Lose” — Ray Charles —

  • Depression
  • Learned helplessness
  • Locus of control
  • Optimism, pessimism
  • Nature vs. nurture

Is anyone ever born to be a loser? To what extent is optimism/pessimism a choice, despite repeated losses or failure?

5. “Bad Boy (Boy’s Will Be Boys)” — Miami Sound Machine —

  • Gender role, stereotype
  • Nature vs nurture

Why will boys be boys? What role does environment play in gender roles, and what role does biology play? Why does a bad boy make the singer feel so good?  Why are women attracted to bad boys?

6. “Born to Be Wild” — Steppenwolf —

  • Nature vs nurture
  • Personality

Is anyone born with a certain disposition or personality that will express itself regardless of the environment he/she grows up in? Is one’s genetic and biological predisposition stronger than one’s learned behavior?

7. “Cat’s in the Cradle” — Cat Stevens —

  • Modeling and imitation
  • Observational learning
  • Parents as role models

Illustrates the power of observational learning–we imitate what we observe over time. Parents and high status individuals are either positive or negative role models, whether they want to be or not.

8. “Crazy” — Patsy Cline —

  • Mental illness
  • Decision making
  • Emotionality vs rationality

“I’m crazy for loving you,” she sings.  Patsy laments that she is lonely, blue, worried, and tired of trying and crying–certainly symptoms of major stress, but not necessarily signs of mental illness. Why is being in love so often associated in pop songs with being “crazy,” foolish, irrational, and out of control? What is the relationship between being in love and being rational? Are the two mutually exclusive?

9. “Crying” — Roy Orbison —

  • Coping with loss (stages)
  • Loneliness

The singer was “all right for a while,” he “could smile for a while,” and he thought he was over his lover. But seeing her again after the breakup and touching her hand brought back the intense sadness, loneliness, and  sense of loss. He concludes that he loves her even more and will never stop crying. When we experience loss of someone we love, do we go through stages? Can our feelings of affection actually grow in intensity? How long does it take to recover, what triggers bring back sadness, and do some people never recover from a loss?

10. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” — Bobby McFerrin —

  • Role playing
  • Self-perception theory
  • Emotional contagion

Is worrying really the major obstacle to happiness? If we stop worrying, will we be happy? To what extent can we change our feelings and mood by acting the opposite? Can one person in a group “bring everybody down”?

11. “Everybody Plays the Fool” — The Main Ingredient —

  • Effect of emotions on rationality
  • Human fallibility

Is there truth in the assertion that, without exception, “everyone plays the fool”?

Is it true that “…when the music starts to play, … your ability to reason is swept away, … heaven on earth is all you see, you’re out of touch with reality”?  How is our perception of reality influenced by our emotions?

12. “Fools Rush In” — Ricky Nelson —

  • Rationality vs emotion
  • Wisdom

Is it true that “wise men never fall in love?” Do only fools fall in love?

13. “(The) Greatest Love of All” — Whitney Houston —

  • Self-esteem
  • Autonomy, self-dependency
  • Role models

Is self-love the greatest of all love? How does one learn to love him/herself? Is it possible to learn to love oneself without role models or help from others? Is self love easy to achieve, as the singer says? How autonomous should we be–are there limits on self-dependency? What is the relationship between autonomy and loneliness?

14. “Garden Party (Ya Can’t Please Everyone, So Ya Gotta to Please Yourself)” — Ricky Nelson —

  • Conformity
  • Individuality
  • Authenticity

What was it about the garden party that taught Nelson the lesson that he could not please everyone, so he should please yourself? Is this a realistic or socially desirable philosophy? Should there be limits on the extent to which one should aspire to please oneself and ignore the desires of others?

15. “Grenade” — Bruno Mars —

  • Norm of reciprocity in relationships
  • Dysfunctional relationships

How important is reciprocity in relationships? Why is the singer in a relationship with someone who would not reciprocate? Is this a dysfunctional relationship? Will this relationship last?

16.”Honesty (Is Such a Lonely Word)” — Bill Joel —

  • Interpersonal communication
  • Intimacy

Is honesty in group and intimate communication “hardly ever heard” or “hard to give”? If so, why is that the case? What would increase honesty in communication?

17. “I’m a Fool to Want You” –Peggy Lee —

  • Self-control
  • Emotion versus rationality

Are our emotions a stronger force in our behavior than our rationality? The singer knows she is being a fool (“I know it’s wrong”), but she can’t seem to control her desire to be without her lover. Can we be addicted to a person?

18. “I’m Only Human” — Human League —

  • Coping and stress
  • Reciprocity of forgiveness

Are we “born to make mistakes”? Can “I’m only human” be used to rationalize irresponsible behavior? How important is receiving and giving forgiveness for mistakes?

19. “Is That All There Is?” — Peggy Lee —

  • Existential anxiety
  • Perception
  • Reframing
  • Reactions to loss

Are our emotional reactions to people and events the result of our belief systems? To what extent can we control our anxieties, fears, disappointments, and losses by changing how we think about them? Is the singer suggesting that we live in the moment?

20. “I Won’t Back Down” — Tom Petty and the Heartbrakers —

  • Personality traits: independent (autonomous) vs counterdependent, obstinate
  • Flexibility as a coping strategy
  • Compromise and cooperation
  • Individualistic vs collectivist cultures

While independence and autonomy are usually seen as desirable qualities in individualistic cultures, stubbornness and mulishness are note. But when should one stand up courageously for a cause and when should one compromise, cooperate, and demonstrate flexibility? The singer seems to suggest that society is pushing him around, and he knows who he is and will stand his ground at any cost. Is there a hint of paranoia in this view? For someone in a work group or team, is this a good anthem?

21. “My Way” – Frank Sinatra —

  • Developmental tasks of late adulthood
  • Erikson stage of ego integrity versus despair
  • Individualism versus collectivism

To what extent does this song suggest a healthy closure to one’s life versus a somewhat self-centered, narcissistic view of one’s life. Would this song be popular in a collectivist culture?

22. “One Is the Loneliest Number” — Three Dog Night —

  • Lonliness
  • Loss

Not surprising that loneliness results when a breakup occurs, but is it also true that “two can be as bad as one” as the song suggests?

23. “Pressure” — Billy Joel —

  • Stress
  • Coping

What other song ever written mentions psychology courses: “Psych 1, Psych 2, what do you know”?

How does one learn to manage those periods of intense stress (pressure) that inevitably come in life? Is telling someone that they can’t handle stress helpful to them? Does studying psychology really help one deal with their own stress? Do most people arrive at adulthood with a certain naivete about stress?

24. “Respect” — Aretha Franklin —

  • Mutual respect in relationships
  • Norm of reciprocity in relationships

She’s going to give him all her money, but she wants a little respect in return when he comes home. What is the role of mutual respect in romantic relationships? How do couples show respect for each other? Is respect more important to women than men? Is respect part of the reciprocity norm in relationships?

25. “Slip Slidin’ Away” — Simon and Garfunkel —

  • Goals achievement
  • Ambivalence
  • Approach-avoidance conflicts
  • Fear of success

Why do we engage in “slip slidin’ away” when we get close to our destination? What is ambivalence, and how common is it?

26. “Sometimes When We Touch” — Dan Hill —

  • Intimacy
  • Erikson’s young adult stage of intimacy vs isolation

This song seems to explore aspects of emotional intimacy. Why must the singer close his eyes when he and his partner touch, and why then is the honesty is too much? How will this reduce his fear? What is there to fear about intimacy?  Why will crying reduce the fear? How does the comment “at times I’d like to break you and drag you to your knees” fit with the fear of intimacy? What role does passion play in this relationship? Is this a description of a normal relationship, or is this a dysfunctional relationship?

27. “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger)” — Kelly Clarkson —

  • tress management and coping

Is the common wisdom “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” which Clarkson uses as the theme of this song, really true? Is achieving emotional maturity and independence the cumulative result of stress inoculations, e.g., repeatedly experiencing stressful events and recovering, or is better to avoid major stressors in life?

28. “Suspicion” — Elvis Presley —

  • Paranoia
  • Trustworthiness

The singer says “Maybe I’m suspicious ’cause true love is so hard to find.” Is that likely the cause of this suspicion that is tormenting him? Is he paranoid? Is there a cure for paranoia?

29. “Teach the Children Well” — Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young —

  • Parenting
  • Values

What should we teach our children and our parents? Why should we not ask why?

30. “What a Fool Believes” — Doobie Brothers —

  • Rationality vs magical thinking
  • Validity of memories
  • Need for perceptual closure

The song seems to address the issue of magical thinking. This is our tendency–springing from our need for certainty, closure, and comfort–to sometimes distort events and experiences and  construct beliefs that are resistant to reason and fact. We cling to our explanations because not knowing–unanswered questions, is difficult to accept. The lyrics put it this way: “What a fool believes…he sees. No wise man has the power to reason away. What seems to be is always better than nothing.”

31. “What Kind of Fool Am I?” — Sammy Davis Jr. —

  • Self-concept
  • Role that others play in defining self

Why does the singer need to fall in love to know what kind of fool he is? Other songs suggest that only fools fall in love, so what is it about love that appears to be related to being a fool?

32. “What’s Forever For” — Michael Martin Murphy —

  • Nature of love
  • Sternberg’s triarchic theory of love

Should love last forever? Doesn’t that depend on how love is defined, e.g., passion, commitment, emotional intimacy? How do the “times” affect love? The divorce rate in America has risen over the past few decades to about 50% of all marriages, will it ever go back down, or go even higher?

33. “Whistle a Happy Tune” — The King and I —

  • Self-perception theory
  • Role playing

Can you really convince yourself that you are happy by pretending to be happy? This song nicely illustrates the established social psychological principle that we sometimes do in fact observe our own behavior in order to determine how we feel. Cognitions can follow behavior as well as behavior following cognitions. There is some validity to the expression “fake it until you make it.”

34. “You Don’t Know Me” — Ray Charles and Diana Krall —

  • Perception of others (person perception)
  • Shyness
  • Group dynamics

How accurate are our perceptions of others–do we know for sure that someone loves, hates, distrusts, fears, or is jealous of us? This song suggests that we sometimes don’t really know how others feel about us, even our friends, and even when it comes to intense emotions such as love. Is it even more difficult to “read” a shy person, and do shy people have more difficulty than others revealing their true feelings?

Beyond friendships and intimate relationships, knowing exactly what others are feeling and thinking is also an issue in groups and teams. One of the major problems working in groups is that it is very difficult to know from what people espouse in a group setting how they really feel about an issue, how they will vote on that issue, or what actions they might take regarding the issue when the meeting is over–both immediately and days, weeks, or months later.

35. “You Don’t Own Me” — Lesley Gore —

  • Egalitarian relationships
  • Gender equality
  • Autonomy
  • Self-determination

One of many songs from the 1960s and 1970s that asserted women’s desires and rights to be treated equally. The singer says that she does not tell the guy what to do or say, so he should not tell her. “Just let me be myself,” and “live my life the way I want.” Seems like quite a reasonable request today, but a theme that was not often heard in popular music when this song became popular in the 1060s.

36. “You May Be Right” — Billy Joel —

  • Mental illness
  • Attraction in relationships
  • Dysfunctional relationships

Are some people looking for a “lunatic” as a partner?  Do opposites attract, or are people attracted by similarities? Is the singer describing a functional or dysfunctional relationship?

37. “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” — Billy Joel —

  • Coping with stress
  • Self-acceptance
  • Universality
  • Vicarious learning
  • Perspective
  • Epistemic beliefs

What is “your second wind”?  Why do we need reminding that “we’re supposed to make mistakes” and “you’re only human”? Is it true that ” you’ll learn more from your accidents than anything that you could ever learn at school”? What epistemic beliefs are revealed in this song?

38. “You’re So Vain” — Carly Simon —

  • Narcissistic personality

Is it possible to love yourself too much? Can your self-esteem be too high?

39. “You’ve Got Your Troubles, I’ve Got Mine” — The Fortunes —

  • Coping with stress
  • Universality

Are there limits on how much we can help others when we need help ourselves?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: