Tuesday, May 17, 2011

U2, Lady Gaga, and The Smiths: More (and Less) The Same

What happens when different people use one language to convey thoughts, hopes, and emotions? You get very different uses of that language with different themes and tenor and tonality, as well as some striking commonalities.

This finding results from a bit of time I spent investigating how emotion expressed through the written word could be quantified. As a testing ground for this subject, I analyzed emotions conveyed through song and focused on three artists, U2, Lady Gaga and The Smiths, purposefully selected for their divergent musical styles and personalities. I then selected one classic album from each artist to compile a representative sample of their work: “The Joshua Tree (U2, 1988)”, “The Fame (Lady Gaga, 2008)”, and “The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths, 1986)”. The results of this analysis were at once expected and surprising.

Using a technique I derived from clinical psychology methods (one far from being perfected..but, hey, I'm working at it), I assessed the amount of emotion each artist has poured into their songs, the themes they expressed, the range of emotions they voiced, and the emotional strength of their words.

First, interesting in their own right, let's take a look at the words of the artists presented in traditional word clouds. Note U2's use of motion, the natural world, and possession ("run", "still", "raining", "hold", "without"); Gaga's penchant for non-words ("eh", "mum", "mah", "da-doo-doo-doo"); the way The Smith's explore self-loathing and despair ("kill", "die", "lonely"); and the universal theme of "Love" (in the case of The Smiths, the love Morrissey will "never know").

U2: "The Joshua Tree" (1988)
Bono’s thoughts of earth, wind, rain and fire more than double his mentions of love.

Lady Gaga: "The Fame" (2008)
Not only does Lady Gaga's music make the listener feel like dancing, she tells them to dance no fewer than 28 times over the course of "The Fame".

The Smiths: "The Queen Is Dead" (1986)
The top nouns and verbs crooned by Morrissey? “Never know / want / believe love tonight”. Characteristically uplifting.

Also interesting, if not surprising, is the range of emotions. Based on an "Emotion Scale", words expressing emotion range from “Strongly Negative” (presented here in dark red) to “Weakly Negative” (lighter red) to “Neutral” (white) to “Weakly Positive” (light green) to “Strongly Positive” (dark green). The distribution of emotional words that show up in the artists' song can then be graphed across this scale. U2 muddles in the red but balances out with expressions of dark green redemption. Gaga frenetically dances her way to the happiness of positive green emotions. The Smiths’ emotions, as to be expected, remain red and true to the sad negativity of their words. Interestingly, not one of these artists spends much vocal effort on vapid, neutral emotions. See the data here:

An analysis of themes explored by each artist reveals other interesting similarities and differences. The idea of “Connection” is critical to all, albeit expressed in different ways. More than half of all the emotions expressed in U2's and The Smith's songs can be classified under the "Connection" theme, as can nearly three-quarters of Lady Gaga's emotional words. While The Lady’s connection-theme is almost single-minded (ringing through the words "LOVE", "LOVER", "ALONE"), U2 couples its thoughts of connection with expressions of “Power/Control” ("DOWN", "BEATEN") and The Smiths ruminate on the “Pleasure/Pain” of their connections ("DIE", "KILL", "SAD", "SHOCKED"...clearly more time is spent on the pain-side of the equation):

But the thing that most sets these artists apart is how frequently they appeal to the listener's emotions in the music (i.e., what percentage of the words used in their songs can be classified as emotional terms). And the results were somewhat surprising. 

Indexed against U2's use of emotional terms (who had the heaviest use), Lady Gaga's "Emotional Density" is actually quite significant. What is surprisingly low is the "Emotional Density" employed by The Smiths.

Looking deeper into The Smith's lyrics reveals that Morrissey is a victim of his own introspection. Second only to the obvious use of the word "AND" throughout "The Queen Is Dead", the word "I" shows up fully 83 times in the album. That's more than 8 times per song! Add to that total extremely high usage of "ME" and "MY" and it is clear to see how emotional words become diluted in The Smith's lyric.