Music’s negative depictions of ageing a ‘downer’

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Music can powerfully influence mood, and for older people the negative depictions of ageing in most popular music can be a downer. Reuters Health reports that researchers analysed images of aging conveyed in 76 songs whose lyrics invoke the topic. Most images were negative, they found.

“We’re aware that the number of people over age 60 will probably double by 2050, and we’re very keen that that ageing experience is a positive one,” said lead author Jacinta Kelly of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK.

In music, ageing is often associated with dependency and frailty and physical decline rather than with attractiveness, Kelly is quoted in the report as saying. “What we’re trying to get across is that this kind of bitterness or hostility is promoted or conveyed and it’s not a trivial thing to explore,” she said. “You can absorb negativity and it can have consequences for your health.”

Harbouring hostile attitudes toward ageing can have negative effects on cardiac health, while a positive outlook can actually improve longevity by five to seven years, she said.

The researchers searched lyrics databases for English language songs relating to age or ageing, settling on 76 relevant songs, mostly from the US and UK, with an average of nine songs recorded each decade between the 1930s and today. The number of relevant songs increased sharply in the 2000s.

They found three major categories of depictions of ageing: “contented and celebrated,” “pitiful and petulant” or “frail and flagging.” Only 21 songs, including Dusty Springfield’s “Goin’ Back” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young’ took a positive view of ageing, while 55 took a negative view, according to the results. The rest characterised older people as self-pitying and lacking in self-esteem, as in Kris Kristofferson’s “Feeling Mortal” and Leonard Cohen’s “Because Of” or with fear and loneliness, as in Celine Dion’s “All By Myself.”

To critically examine the representation of ageing identities in popular music texts.
Having a positive outlook provides both short-term benefits and has been proven to help people live longer. Music is capable of conveying positive and negative emotion towards ageing, however, only a limited number of unpublished studies exist on how age and ageing is represented in popular music.
Qualitative discourse analysis.
In July 2014, a search without time limits was completed of the music lyrics databases, The Music Lyric Database, Songfacts, The Macronium and Absolute lyrics for English language music texts relating to age and ageing.
Findings revealed (N = 76) relevant music texts offering up negative and positive discourses of age and ageing, with negative predominating. Identities of age and ageing were categorized as ‘contented and celebrated aged’, ‘pitiful and petulant pensioners’ and ‘frail and flagging old folks’.
From this study, it is evident that mainly negative representations of age and ageing are available in popular music texts. It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting, confidence and esteem lowering for older people and their potential impact might be considered carefully by artists. However, while evidence exists that negative and positive emotions can influence health and well-being, further qualitative research is needed to explore what impact precisely the negative texts have on those experiencing ageing.

Full Reuters Health report
Journal of Advanced Nursing abstract

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