Infrared cats

Does country music cause suicide?

Can hurtin’ music actually hurt you? Last week, Harvard held the 14th annual IgNobel Awards — tongue-in-cheek prizes for world’s weirdest research. This year, the winner in the “medicine” category was “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide,” a paper that Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach published in a 1992 issue of the journal Social Forces. I can’t find a copy of the full paper online, but here’s an abstract that explains the argument:

In this article, we explore the link between a particular form of popular music (country music) and metropolitan suicide rates. We contend that the themes found in country music foster a suicidal mood among people already at risk of suicide and that it is thereby associated with a high suicide rate. The effect is buttressed by the country subculture and a link between this subculture and a racial status related to an increased suicide risk.

The IgNobel was obviously awarded because this research was so flourescently surreal. But the IgNobels do not dispute the findings of the studies they honor. On the contrary, the IgNobels are intended to highlight research that “first makes people laugh, then makes them think”.

So we’re still left with a serious question: Just how badly was I risking my life by listening to Dwight Yoakam last night? Gundlach began pondering this when he was teaching a class and discovered that Nashville, for some reason, has suicide rates much higher than would ordinarily be predicted by the known correlates (which include, apparently, high levels of unemployment, divorce, and the number of people who are Roman Catholic). Then, as the New Jersey Star Ledger reports …

“Everyone in the class said ‘country music!“‘Gundlach said in an interview.

Further research, including analysis of country music lyrics, showed the major themes — including the travails of love, drinking alcohol as a way to deal with life’s problems, and a sense of hopelessness about work and finances — have all been linked to increased suicide risk. Country music listeners are also big gun owners.

When Gundlach and Stack tallied suicide rates in 49 large metropolitan areas, they found rates went up in sync with the proportion of radio air time devoted to country music.

Well, thankfully I don’t have a gun — or as we liked to call ‘em back in the day, an “equalizer” — kicking around my New York apartment. Even so, I somehow doubt that listening to today’s country would be particularly dangerous, because it’s much less intense than before. Old-school country from the 30s and 40s was incredibly downbeat stuff. Perhaps more dangerously yet, it was — like traditional blues of that period — so profoundly weird that no modern radio station today dares play it; in the jingoistic/faux-gritty age of Shania Twain, Gretchen Wilson and the unspeakably loathsome Toby Keith, old-school country would seem like a broadcast from the surface of Mars. In today’s soccer-mom-focus-group-honed New Country, you can be funny or cocky or angry or gosh-darn-downhome as you want, but you cannot be as truly spittle-flecked and eye-buggingly strange as the freaks who gave birth to the genre so many decades ago. I mean, go listen to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” album. God damn that’s an odd album. I think it’s that combination of desperation and woodshed weirdness that makes old-school country seem so wonderfully bleak, and today’s country, by comparison, so surgically devoid of any emotion. Even Gundlach seems to intuit this: A wire story quoted him as saying that the country music of 1992 was “gloomier than today”.

A victory for public health, and a tragedy for music. There’s a tear in my beer.

(Thanks to the Eyebeam reBlog for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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