Many of the world’s classic songs are all about “you” – consider Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, The Beatles’ “‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and Elton John’s “Your Song”.
According to a new study just published in Psychological Science, there’s a good reason why ‘you’ feature so much in song lyrics. Researchers Grant Packard and Jonah Berger show that the popularity of songs is correlated with the amount of ‘you’ in the lyrics.
Packard and Berger first examined the lyrics of 1,736 English-language songs that made it to the Billboard Top 50 downloads chart from 2014-2016. They found that higher ranking songs tended to contain a higher density of ‘you’, or related words (‘yours’, ‘yourself’). This was true even after controlling for the genre, the artist, and the topic of the song.
What’s more, popularity was most strongly predicted by use of ‘you’ as the object of a sentence (e.g. “Coming at you like a dark horse”) rather than ‘you’ as a the subject (“You can’t touch it”).
Packard and Berger suggest that object-you lyrics are especially popular because they help listeners to project the lyrics onto people in their own lives: ‘you’ is a uniquely flexible pronoun, which could apply to anyone.
We suggest that second-person pronouns, rather than putting listeners in the singer’s shoes, or encouraging them to see the singer’s personal perspective (e.g., Whitney Houston’s views about her own love), seem to encourage audiences to imagine the narrative in relation to someone in their own lives.
In this way, second-person pronouns encourage narrative transportation, but rather than being transported into someone else’s narrative, people are given a new way of looking at their own lives… the lyrics encourage people to experience some aspect of their lives through the lens of the singer’s lyrics
In follow-up studies, Packard and Berger provide considerable extra evidence for the power of the lyrical ‘you’. In particular, they carried out two experimental studies to show that editing lyrics to add ‘you’ makes people like them more. This suggests that the you effect is indeed causal, and not just a correlation.
Two studies show that lyrics containing the word “you” (second person) are rated more highly than lyrics in which “you” is replaced by “her” or “him” (third person) or “it” (no person). From Packard & Berger (2020) Psych Sci.
In my view, this is a strong set of studies. I like the proposed explanation – that we relate to songs about ‘you’ because we can imagine that the song is about someone in our own life.
To really test this theory, though, I’d want to see evidence that second person pronouns make lyrics more popular in other languages, not just English.
Also, many languages have a plural second-person pronoun, and others have an informal and a formal singular ‘you’ (the formal one is sometimes also the plural.)
If Packard and Berger’s theory is right, I would predict that it would be the singular, informal ‘you’ that would most predict liking, as this is the ‘you’ that people would most likely use to address people close to them.