Don't Let Your Sons Grow Up to be Cowboys: Country Music Causes Suicide?!


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Steven Stack (Wayne State) and Jim Gundlach (Auburn) we're interested in the interplay between music and society and set out to study whether country music exposure had any effect on suicide rates. Their proposed mechanism for this was through the change in psychological mood that music can lead to. Their hypothesis was that the themes of country music reinforced a suicidal mood among the "country fan" subculture.  Content Analyses of the country genre has found a high prevalence of themes that have been linked to suicide, such as divorce and jealousy. Additionally, they found that country music often encourages alcohol abuse as a normal or even necessary way of dealing with your problems. A previous study had linked exposure to country music and higher alcohol consumption. Frequent drinking seems to be linked to higher suicide risk, as implied in Wasserman's analysis of the effect of prohibition. 

In the study, their regression analysis found that metropolitan areas with more frequent airtime had higher suicide rates, regardless of how southern the city was, divorce rate, gun availability or the poverty level. They interpreted their data to show that country music won't drive somebody to suicide, but it could potentially put suicidal members of the subculture at even greater risk. But before you start deleting all traces of Tim McGraw from your iTunes, there are some important questions to be asked. 

1) The null hypothesis was only rejected for the white suicide rate and not black. Why? If themes of the music put listeners at risk, shouldn't it put them all at risk? Can we just assume that African-Americans are less influenced by country music or just listen to it less than their white counterparts in the same city? Even in the south?

2) Could reverse causality be in play here? That is: rather than country music exposure causing depression/suicide risk, could depressed people seek out country music, leading to a higher demand and therefore playing time in areas with higher suicide rates?

 3) This study was only done in metropolitan areas, holding constant the variables {country music, poverty, southern region, divorce, gun availability}. Could there be some third variable that is causing the increased suicide risk that is specific to cities? Are the prevalent causes of urban suicide the same as they are in rural areas (where you could make the argument for country music being an even stronger cultural force).

4) Relevance today. Are the driving forces of suicide in the culture of 2013 the same as they were in the less technologically advanced world of 1992, the time of the survey? Is the country music landscape the same today? Maybe there is a subtle theme shift precipitated by pop-country artists (Taylor Swift, etc.), or the members of the country fan subculture themselves.

5) How were the content analyses done? I couldn't locate the study cited in the paper at PSU, but they make a mention of a study of 1,400 hit songs. I would like to know how "hits" were determined. Even if country music "caused" suicide, maybe only niche songs were guilty. There is no way to know, and an experimental study would clearly be unethical (attempting to induce suicidal thoughts in subjects).

If you ask me, it's a good idea to avoid country music despite your feelings on the study. But in all seriousness, I thought this paper was a fun one to read as a non-science major, and a good subject to practice critical analysis and skepticism on. 

3 Comments

Hey Mark,
I was never a fan of country music because they are all so depressing. I never meant that like actually depressing as in the mental illness but I'm not surprised by these findings. All country songs just have sad stories behind them and I don't know how "happy" people can listen to this music. Now I have an excuse the next time someone asks me why I don't like country music.

As a fan of country music I found this post very off putting. I've never really thought of country music as depressing or more depressing as another genre. This is probably because I've only really gotten into country music in the last 4 years and country music these days is indeed a lot different than it was 20 years ago when this study was conducted. When I think about the themes of country music these days I think of breakups, love, partying, beer and trucks. None of those themes sound especially suicidal to me. I think it is important to note that plenty of other genres of music have known to have negative effects on their listeners, rap music in particular. Here is a study that details the correlation of rap music videos and violence. http://library.wcsu.edu/dspace/bitstream/0/35/1/

Wow, what an awesome article. I love how in depth you went with that study. You took such a unique approach compared to other students who normally just highlight their topic rather than critique it. Your questioning of the article allowed me to see the different ways skepticism could be practiced and has inspired me to maybe take my own approach in my next blog! Another area to be critiqued is the music being played in these cities: If it were country, were all country songs depressing? And could the third variable possibly be lovesick pop songs? There being played as well! Many things come into play with this study and I love how you took the initiative to question them. I found a website that lists the top 100 country songs from the 1990's...maybe you can take a look and see if their all depressing!

http://countrymusic.about.com/od/charts/a/bltop100_90sp.htm

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