eyes on the U.S.

C'est La Vie, Partner: A French Wink At Country Music

To help mark France's annual Fete de la Musique, Le Monde looks back at an old study that asked whether country music causes suicide.

Garth Brooks singing "American Pie". Kill me now.
Garth Brooks singing "American Pie". Kill me now.
Pierre Barthélémy

PARIS - France recently enjoyed its 32nd "Fête de la Musique," a celebration of music in the streets — because apparently the wonderful Eurovision Song Contest just wasn’t enough. But if you're looking forward to going out and hearing some more, tread carefully, dear readers. Music may soothe the nerves, but as Billy Ray Cyrus might say, it can also lead to an Achy Breaky Heart — or worse.

Consider the 1992 American study published in the academic social science journal Social Forces. The two authors, Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach, started from the obvious idea that music directly and deeply influences our moods. What they set out to discover was how this effect can be even more powerful when the musical genre belongs to a subculture in which people share similar taste in clothes, radio shows, concerts, etc.

The two authors focused on American country music, which spread from its rural Southern birthplace to big cities all across the country -- although whites overwhelmingly represented the genre's listeners, and still do. They regarded country music as somewhat sad, a genre whose songs are full of characters struggling with marital discord, alcohol problems and job troubles. To say nothing of the artists themselves, of course.

In fact, there is proof in the numbers. Of the 1,400 country songs Stack and Gundlach were able to analyze -- thanks to a previous study -- nearly three-quarters were about booze and broken love, sometimes both. As in, “Oh baby, why did I smash my last bottle of whiskey on your head? / I miss you so much.” (The bottle or the lover’s head? No one knows). The rest of the songs were largely about common people dealing with common problems: money, work, broken-down pickups. Potentially enough to make the most vulnerable listeners jump off a roof...

To confirm this, Stack and Gundlach focused on 49 major U.S. cities for which they had music data about what genres of music, and how much of each, were played on local radio stations. Just as an epidemiologist would gauge the degrees of exposure to lead or asbestos, they figured out quantitatively who listened to country music and then cross-referenced that data with suicide figures.

And what they found was definitely noteworthy -- if not entirely surprising, given country music's tendency toward melancholy: There is an obvious correlation between country music and the suicide rate among whites, who, again, overwhelmingly represent its listeners.

The researchers were clear to point out that a correlation doesn’t necessarily mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship — that country music induces suicide, in other words. Instead, it just so happens that people who listen to country music, for whatever reason, are more likely to kill themselves. Maybe it depends on who’s singing.

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