This column typically includes three sections inspired by my adventures as a trivia fact-checker: Citations Needed, about my favorite source of the week; Rabbit Holes, about deeper dives and curiosities inspired by certain questions; and Pedantic Predicaments, about fiddly details that make some questions a little trickier to nail down.
This week, one question covers all three. Let’s dive in!
We’re relying on this data science project from a few years back, by Brown undergrads Elaine Hsu and Hattie Xu. It’s got some great insights from a robust dataset consisting of the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 list for every year from 1964 to 2015. They found that, yes, “baby” is consistently beaten out by “love” no matter what decade you’re looking at, with those two always taking the top spot.
But here’s the problem: The initial version of that question was talking about words in song titles, not lyrics – and there aren’t really great sources online that have an answer. So I’m going to figure it out! We have access to a handy dataset of every weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart from its inception in 1958 through May 2023, and I can harness the power of Google Sheets – at least with the help of ChatGPT. It’s bad at many things, but it is pretty good at spreadsheet formulas and scripts.
(By the way, I’m not differentiating between total word instances and number of songs featuring a given word, so ABBA’s “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” counts as five instances each of “I” and “do.” You get extra points for emphasis.)
Indeed, after spending hours fiddling with spreadsheets, I’ve determined that “love” and “baby” are the top two words, ignoring all the articles and pronouns and such. But the ubiquity of “love” is astonishing: With 2,264 instances, even if you include articles and pronouns it’s number four on the list, ahead of “me” and “a” and “to.” The list is topped by “The,” which appears just 1,620 times more than “love.”
Who can be surprised? After all, love is addictive like a drug, and it’s all you need, even when it bites or gets a bad name. Love keeps us together and leads us back. That’s the power of love; of course it would be on top.
“Baby” is a distant second to love, appearing 468 times in song titles, and it’s not as consistent either. “Love” has held the number one spot every single decade, while “baby” has lost a lot of ground since its peak in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Here’s a chart of the top ten words overall and by decade; note that “baby” falls off completely by the 2010s:
A song counts for the decade it first charted, so a slow-burning song released in late 1989 could be in the ‘90s group. This chart also skips the ‘50s and 2020s, as they have much smaller datasets. Again, Billboard’s chart didn’t start until 1958, and we’re not through the 2020s yet, despite the last four years feeling like forty. But if you were wondering, the top nouns after “love” for the 2020s so far are “version” and “Taylor’s.”
A few extra discoveries, from these top 10 lists and the dataset as a whole:
- In song titles, women tend to be “girls,” while men tend to be men, probably as a combination of misogyny and convenient meter in songwriting. The ‘70s were the only time “woman” was in the top ten and “girl” was out, and the 2000s the only decade where “man” wasn’t around (even though it was the decade of The Man Comes Around).
- “Fire” is surprisingly common in the ‘80s, at #13 for the decade. Yes, that’s including the one we didn’t start.
- I’m not counting pronouns in my curated lists, but “U” is #41 overall in the ‘90s and #31 in the 2000s. In those decades, “U” shows up about once for every ten “you”s. That trend got its start back in the ‘80s; U can thank Prince or maybe Devo for that.
- The 2010s were peak “good” and peak “bad”!
One last exploration: What’s the most common overall title to appear on the Billboard Hot 100?
Of all things, it’s “Hold On,” with 18 (!!!) separate songs by that name appearing in the Hot 100’s history. Notable examples include Wilson Phillips (the only “Hold On” to hit no. 1), En Vogue, Santana, and our old friend Justin Bieber. Other exceptionally common song titles include “Forever” (16, including another Bieber song), “You,” and “Stay” (15, which can claim two no. 1s thanks to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and hey, this one’s Bieber again!).
Mark Gartsbeyn is a resident fact-checker at Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. He writes a weekly column on the idiosyncrasies of his work, which appears on Questionist each Wednesday.