By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 May 2011)
Country is among the most popular music genres in the United States, with a market share of 10.7% in 2000, compared to 24.8% for rock music, nearly 13% for rap/hip-hop, 8% for pop, and just short of 3% for jazz (Benz, 2001). Country music has an even higher popularity rating when music fans are asked about their preferences, suggesting that many people listen to it on the radio rather than purchasing albums or individual songs (Jeffrey, 1998).
Country music arose from a story-telling tradition, with a preference for detailed narrative rather than a narrow focus on a specific issue or a moment in time that characterizes many other genres. The majority of country music songs draw upon the theme of love (often the loss of love), and the only political issues that are usually addressed include patriotism and the stresses associated with poverty, changing family values, or being a part of the blue-collar working class. Simple dualities (good vs. evil, work vs. freedom, criminal vs. law-abiding) are prefered to complex moral gray areas. In older country music, common emotions expressed include, guilt, inadequacy, depression, confusion, and loneliness, and similarities have been found between country and rap music themes in their depictions of violence and underclass realities (Ryan & Calhoun III, 1996).
The majority of country music fans are over 35 years of age, and many are over 45 (Jeffrey, 1998). An ongoing music-fan personality study undertaken by Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University has found that country fans tend to be extroverted and hardworking (BBC News, 5 September 2008).
Studies Investigating the Country Music-Suicide Link
Nearly 20 years ago, Stack and Gundlach (1992) made headlines, drew hate mail, and won an IgNoble Prize for discovering that country music fans had a higher suicide rate than fans of other music genres. Having conducted a multiple regression analysis in 49 areas of the United States, the pair found that in areas where country music was most popular (as evidenced by airtime devoted to it on local radio stations), the suicide rate among white people was higher. This result was not explainable by other factors such as divorce rates, poverty, or the availability of guns in the area. The researchers attribute this finding to the bleak themes in many older country music songs, which often focused on alcohol abuse, marital strife, financial difficulties, employment problems, and an overall sense of bitterness or hopelessness. They believe that this music may exacerbate a preexisting suicidal mood, though it is unlikely to trigger suicidal thoughts in an otherwise happy person.
Maguire and Snipes (1995), conducting their own study in 1994, were unable to replicate the results of Stack and Gundlach, so they have asserted that the country-music suicide link is spurious. Stack and Gundlach have responded by critiquing the latter’s research method. Until further studies are conducted, it appears that the question is still open for debate, with the link between country music and suicide neither proved nor disproved definitively.
In a 2004 interview, Gundlach notes that newer country songs tend to focus on more upbeat themes than older country music, and so are less likely to make a bad state of mind worse. He describes today’s country music as “peppier” and asserts that “The country music that we have today is not the same kind of country music that was related to suicide back when we did this … When we did [our study], there were songs like D-I-V-O-R-C-E … It was predominantly tears in the beer types of music” (Reuters/ABC News Online, 3 October 2004).
There has certainly been a decline in the popularity of alcoholic love-’em-an-leave-’em males in country songs, with more caring men and strong, assertive women moving to the forefront of the genre in recent years (Ryan & Calhoun III, 1996). This suggests that even if there was a suicide link in the past, it is unlikely to exist with modern-day country music.
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- BBC News. (5 September 2008). “Music Tastes Link to Personality.” News.BBC.co.uk.
- Benz, M. (31 March 2001). “Rock Still the Top-Selling Genre.” Billboard Magazine, 113(12), 6.
- Jeffrey, D. (1998). “Country Is No. 1 Genre, But Its Fans Aren’t Biggest Buyers.” Billboard, 110(36), 103.
- Reuters/ABC News Online. (3 October 2004). “Country Music-Suicide Study Tops the IgNoble Awards.” ABC.net.au.
- Ryan, J., & Calhoun III, L. H. (1996). “Gender or Genre? Emotion Models in Commercial Rap and Country Music.” Popular Music & Society, 20(2), 121-154.
- Snipes, J.B., & Maguire, E.R. (1995). “Country Music, Suicide, and Spuriousness.” Social Forces, 74(1), 327-329.
- Stack, S., & Gundlach, J. (1992). “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide.” Social Forces, 71(1), 211-218.