"My anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hon." - From 'Baby Got Back' by Sir Mix-A-Lot
"She's got me spendin'. Spendin' all your money on me, up on me, on me." - From 'My Humps' by the Black Eyed Peas
Evolutionary psychologists believe that men and women have evolved fundamentally different mating strategies in order to maximize the chances of passing along their genes to future generations. It is thought that men have developed a tendency to pursue short-term sexual encounters with young and curvy women, whereas women have developed a tendency to hold out for long-term relationships with reliable men who have the resources necessary to take care of them and any potential offspring they produce.1 There is a substantial amount of research supporting the idea that men and women are indeed looking for different things in their relationships and that these preferences fall along the lines predicted by this theory; however, a new set of studies suggests that these tendencies are so deeply ingrained that we may have even developed a preference for popular media that reinforces these sexual strategies.
In one of these studies, every song that made it Billboard's Top Ten lists for Pop, R&B, and Country in 2009 was analyzed for content.2 A total of 174 songs were included, and the lyrics of each song were coded by two independent raters to determine the extent to which they revealed "reproductive messages" (e.g., references to genitalia, hook-ups, long-term relationships, money, etc.). Results indicated that fully 92% of the songs contained at least one such message. Although the vast majority of the songs in each genre contained reproductive themes, R&B songs had by far the most. However, the nature of the references differed significantly across musical categories. For instance, references to status, resources, and sex appeal were most common in R&B and pop music. In contrast, references to commitment and faithfulness were most common in country music.
Follow-up studies revealed that the most popular songs (i.e., those that went to #1) included the highest number of references to reproduction. And more importantly, the researchers uncovered evidence that this is not a new trend. Reproduction references were common across all musical genres dating back several decades, and they were even evident in the most popular operas traced back hundreds of years.
These results provide strong evidence that sex always has and always will sell. But is it because we are truly driven to prefer songs that feature reproductive messages and reinforce our theorized mating strategies and preferences? Not necessarily. Perhaps people are drawn to these songs for reasons other than their lyrics (e.g., maybe it has something to do with the performers' looks and voices, or maybe the tempo of these songs is somehow different). Plus, if we were driven to prefer media that contains evolutionary themes, why wouldn't we also be jamming to songs about finding food and water or fulfilling other basic needs? In short, we can't say for sure why sexy songs are so popular--but whatever the reason, if you're trying to write or record the next big hit, it might not hurt to throw in a reproductive message or ten.
Check out other articles on evolutionary psychology on Dr. Lehmiller's blog, The Psychology of Sex.
1Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.
2Hobbs, D. R., & Gallup, G. G. (2011). Songs as a medium for embedded reproductive messages. Evolutionary Psychology, 9, 390-416.