The Psychological Reason 'Billie Jean' Kills at Weddings

Research suggests that a love of particular songs can be passed from generation to generation.

… Baby, One More Time” is not a good song. You could make a convincing argument, in fact, that it is an actively terrible song: devoid of musical merit, underdeveloped, overproduced, eroding our collective IQs one oh, baby, baby at a time—a notable roadblock, basically, on humanity’s long march toward the hazy destination of Progress.

And yet: I love “… Baby, One More Time” with the kind of mindless devotion I normally reserve for family, friends, and late-night Taco Bell. “… Baby, One More Time” was released when I was a teenager, which means that it is, for better and very much for worse, an indelible part of my past, the soundtrack of breezy road trips and awkward dance parties and even awkward-er karaoke sessions. Which in turn means that, while I definitely do not like “… Baby, One More Time,” I definitely do love it. In the same way I love “Billie Jean” and “Gin and Juice” and pretty much any entry, from “Like a” to “Livin’ on a,” in the late-80s Prayer genre.

Music-specific nostalgia is well-documented, scientifically and anecdotally. It is, among other things, the reason that Spotify recommends songs based on your age and that “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “Rapper’s Delight” will forever be part of wedding DJs’ repertoires. But musical nostalgia isn’t determined by age alone: “Twist and Shout” and “Love Shack,” after all, also continue to summon people to dance floors. Musical nostalgia, it seems, is instead a kind of cultural inheritance. And maybe even a familial one.

The blog Priceonomics reports on a study, conducted by researchers from Cornell and UC Santa Cruz in 2012 and published in the journal Psychological Science, that explores the scope of musical nostalgia. The researchers Carol Lynne Krumhansl and Justin Adam Zupnick took a group of 62 college-aged subjects, 20 years old on average, and exposed them to clips from songs dating from 1955 to 2009. The songs represented each year's top two most popular singles, from "Rock Around the Clock" in 1955 to "Poker Face" in 2009.

The unsurprising stuff: The survey subjects reported feeling particular nostalgia for music that was popular when they were children and teenagers. (Think, given that Millennial cohort, the Backstreet Boys.) And they also seemed increasingly attached to the music that was released after their adolescence. (Think: Beyonce, Usher, the Black-Eyed Peas.) “Personal memories,” the authors note, “were closely correlated to whether [music] made participants feel happy and energized”—another way of explaining, to pick a random example, a #sorrynotsorry appreciation of "... Baby One More Time."

The surprising aspect of the research, though, is that the subjects also displayed a nostalgic attachment to music that pre-dated their own teenage years—music that had become popular long before they were born. The subjects' music-related nostalgia, the researchers note, features notable peaks and valleys for music created across decades:

Personal Memories and Perceived Song Quality
Psychological Science

Song Enjoyment and Recognition
Psychological Science

The researchers describe this effect, lyrically, as “cascading reminiscence bumps.” And the bumps they recorded are notably cyclical, occurring for music released in the late 1960s and then, even more dramatically, for music released in the early 1980s—the times when, previous research suggests, conditions for musical nostalgia formation would be at their peak. The bumps, in other words, match fairly well with the nostalgia you'd expect from the subjects' parents—and, to a lesser extent, from their grandparents.

As Krumhansl and Zupnick explain,

One might speculate that the bump for 1960 to 1969 in our study is in part a case of transmission, but through two generations. The statistics locate it somewhat later than when participants’ grandparents’ preferences typically would have been formed. Assuming that the grandparents were 25 when their children were born, they would have been 25 to 35 during the 1960s. However, because of the quality of the music, as suggested by Schulkind et al. (1999), the grandparents might have continued to listen to popular music later in their lives than other generations did, and thus passed it on to our participants’ parents, who heard this music when they were young. One might also note the introduction of compact cassette tapes in the 1960s, which made music more reproducible and portable. Thus, some combination of the quality of the music, transmission through two generations, and its increased availability might account for the effect. Or it could be just that the quality of the music was higher, in which case it will show up in future studies.

Which is another way of saying, as Priceonomics sums it up, that nostalgia, like so much else, can be "inherited." You may have your mom's nose; you may also end up with her love of The Police. My daughter may end up, through a combination of free will and cultural osmosis, a fan of the pop confections inflicted on the world by one Britney Spears.

I am so, so sorry.

What the research also means, on a more collective level, is that there is a psychological reason that "Hey Ya" will inevitably be bringing people to the dance floors of the weddings of 2040—and that only part of that reason can be attributed to humanity's ongoing desire to shake it like a Polaroid picture. Just as nostalgia tends to confer more nostalgia, popularity also tends to build on itself: Once a song makes it to the top of the charts, the memories people associate with it help to keep it in our cultural consciousness. There's a good chance your grandchildren will roll their eyes at the Black-Eyed Peas; there's also a chance, though, that some day in the distant future, they'll fire up an ancient MP3 player, summon a hologram of Fergie and her crew, and boogie down in the hopes that tonight really will be a good night.