How Do I Choose a Topic for a Song? Part 4
Pulling Pop Topics from the Billboard Charts
- How Do I Choose a Topic for a Song? Part 4
We’ve finally made it to part 4 in the series! In today’s foray, we’ll look at what song topics or themes are most common for songs that have made it into the Billboard charts. If you haven’t already, please check out the first three parts in this series about picking song topics:
Now to accomplish this analysis, I pulled 200 songs from the Top 40 charts in several genres and researched the lyrics and meanings of each one. Before we get into the results, let me explain my parameters briefly…
For this analysis, I created a spreadsheet of 200 songs that appeared in the Billboard Top 40 charts in the following genres: Pop, Rap, and Rock. To get to 200 songs, I went back as about 12-14 months. So this research represents a sample encompassing the years 2022 and reaching back into the summer of 2021.
Obviously, lyrics can cover more than one emotion or theme at a time. So when determining the overall topic of each song, I allotted two “topic” slots for each track. Not all songs had two main topics so—while 200 songs were analyzed—I ended up with 369 individual topic slots being filled. The percentages in the following charts therefore do not add up to 100%, but rather they add to 184.50% because some songs had more than one topic.
What are the Most Popular Topic for Top-Charting Songs?
So what was the most common song themes that topped the charts in 2022? Drum roll please…
The most popular topics for songs were:
- Love (34.5%)
- Heartbreak (17.5%)
- Breakup (16%)
- Bad Relationships (14.5%)
- Sex/Lust (14.5%)
- Self-Destruction (12%)
- F#%& You! (5.5%)
- Clout (5%)
- Rebellion (5%)
- Other (60%)
The results skew even further towards a single theme when you combine all of the topics that relate to romance and relationships (love, heartbreak, breakup, and bad relationships). With all of those themes combine, the conglomerate topic of “Love & Relationships” makes up a whooping 82.5% of all songs appearing on the charts.
It comes as no surprise that the topic of “love” appeared most often in hit songs, with 34.5% (over a third) of all songs using this theme. For this topic, I qualified any song that was specifically talking about:
- Being in love with someone else with reciprocation
- Being in love with someone else without reciprocation (i.e. “unrequited love”)
- Reminiscing on a previous romance in a happy or longing way
- Lamenting the loss of love
- Feeling love for the world or people in general
I did not include topics related to self-love and self-worth, as those themes are different enough to warrant their own section. Most songs with this theme were written as if they were being sung to a lover—that is, from a first-person perspective. Lastly, there were some notable theme overlaps for songs of this topic. By that, I mean a significant number of love songs had secondary themes talking specifically about “sex” or “heartbreak”:
- 18.84% of love songs also discussed or heavily implied sexual relations
- 15.94% of love songs also related to the songwriter’s heart being broken by someone else
Just as love is a very popular topic, lost love or heartbreak was the second-most common topic for songs on the Billboard charts. These tracks found their songwriters looking back of relationships that had ended, both on good and bad terms.
In third place comes the theme of “breakups”. Specifically, I designated this term for songs that focused on:
- having recently ended a relationship; this was usually on bad terms,
- having been broken up with by another person; again, usually on bad terms, or
- wanting to end a relationship that is not working out
4. Bad Relationships
The last two topics lead us to number four: bad relationships. This topic was specifically about romances, flings, or dating scenarios where the songwriter admits that the interactions are not beneficial. There were a surprising number of Billboard-charting songs about a lover being “no good” and treating the songwriter poorly. Oftentimes, the lyrics crooned that the relationship needs (or needed) to end but the lyricist had reservations about giving up on the other person.
What struck me the most was the number of songs that dealt with the theme of self-destruction. Overall, 24 of the 200 songs found the songwriter admitting that they were abusing themselves or letting others abuse them, or that they were acting in a way that could get themselves in trouble or hurt. Songs with this theme touched on issues of self-harm, substance use, and intentionally forming relationships with bad people.
6. Lust & Sexual Relations
I was not very shocked to find a handful of songs all about getting busy. This topic does not need much further explanation (or I’m not going to give any further explanation at least). These types of tracks came in two varieties:
- Songs talking about sex in a romanticized way, and
- Songs talking about sex in a very carnal manner
It’s interesting to note that there was a definitive genre skew for lust-laden songs: out of the 29 songs with this topic, 16 of them were in the genre of Hip Hop/Rap. That means 55.17% (or more than half) of all sex songs were hip hop.
Other Notable Topics
There were many other topics discussed, some of them only being used one or twice. However, there were some interesting topics that appeared repeatedly—albeit at a much lower frequency than the top 6 we just reviewed. These include:
- “Screw You!” is the best way to describe this type of song. These were tracks where the songwriter basically just told somebody off, talked trash about another person (usually an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend), or wished ill will on a specific someone
- Clout was another topic that appeared mainly in the hip hop genre. Out of all the times “clout” showed up as a theme, 70% of those occurrences were in a hip hop song. By clout, I mean songs where the lyricist was bragging about his/her wealth, status, power, and/or popularity.
- Rebellion appeared in 5% of songs on the charts. These were tracks all about resisting authority, social norms, peer pressure, and/or perceived suppression of one’s rights. A few of these songs were political in nature, but many of them were about personal or social-standards rebellion rather than fighting the government.
- Enjoying Life was a somewhat vague but recurring theme where the lyricist discussed reasons that they feeling good about being alive or things they do (or plan to do) in order to enjoy their time on this Earth.
Some other song topics that showed up in smaller numbers included:
- Mortality (fear or contemplation about death)
- Toxic Behavior (songs, some lamenting and some praising, the bad behavior of the songwriter or his/her significant others)
- Wealth (tracks about being rich)
- Internal Conflict and Mental Illness (concerns about sanity as well as topics of anxiety, fear, and depression)
- Loneliness and Isolation
- Self-Worth and Self-Love
Vague and Specific Lyrics Both Have Their Place
Some lyrics were rather vague or generalized in their subject matter, while some artists were far more specific and defined in their writing style. There were a few notable and intriguing tracks about very personal events, including:
- “The 30th” by Billie Eilish (about a car crash)
- “Black Summer” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers (about a wildfire in Australia)
- “I Am Not A Woman, I Am A God” by Halsey (about miscarriage and her pregnancy)
- “Easy on Me” by Adele (about her divorce)
Impact of Current Events on Song Topics
I noticed many songs that talked about feelings of loneliness, isolation, and disconnect from the world. These themes were likely influenced by the pandemic lockdowns that occurred over last few years throughout the world, which to many people feeling caged in or cut off from their social circles. A few specific tracks that alluded to or outright mentioned the pandemic, the lockdowns, or their effects included:
- “My Love” by Florence + The Machine
- “Cooped Up” by Post Malone
- “Stick Season” by Noah Kahan
Should You Borrow Themes from Hit Songs?
Now that you know what the most popular songs are talking about these days, you may ask yourself: “should I just copy what everyone else is writing about?” The answer is that there’s nothing wrong with getting inspired by the works of others, but there is no need for you to follow a formula in order to write a good song.
Many of the most common topics ranking in the charts are nigh-universal emotions and experiences. Most people today have fallen in love, felt anxious, or had their hearts broken before. If you hear a song on the radio that really speaks to you, definitely experiment by writing down the topic of that track’s lyrics and try writing about it from your own perspective. Just don’t pressure yourself to write about a certain theme just because another song got big with it.
The Final Takeaway
A whole lot of hit songs are written about matters of the heart: love, loss, heartache, and hard breaks. If we were to expand the scope of this research and look at the themes of songs over many decades, we would probably discover that love remains a primary topic throughout the ages. Other themes with growing popularity in the 2020s seem to be ones of loneliness, mental health, being bad, wealth, and fame.
If you want to write a hit song, it’s likely that your theme won’t be the deal-breaker on it’s potential success. There are far more factors to “hitmaking” than just subject matter. But if you’re lacking inspiration as of late, it won’t hurt either for you to experiment with the topics reviewed in this article.