Extant research documents the impact of meritocratic narratives in news media that justify economic inequality. This paper inductively explores whether popular music is a source of cultural frames about inequality. We construct an original dataset combining user data from Spotify with lyrics from Genius and employ unsupervised computational text analysis to classify the content of the 3,660 most popular songs across 23 European countries. Drawing on Lizardo’s enculturation framework, we analyze lyrics through the lens of public culture and explore their link with individual beliefs as a reflection of personal culture. We find that, in more unequal societies, songs that frame inequalities as a structural issue (lyrics about ‘Struggle’ or omnipresent ‘Risks’) are more popular than those adopting a meritocratic frame (songs we describe as ‘Bragging Rights’ or those telling a ‘Rags to Riches’ tale). Moreover, we find that the presence in public culture of a certain frame is associated with the expression of frame-consistent individual beliefs about inequality. We conclude by reflecting on the promise of automatic text classification for the study of lyrics, the theorized role of popular music in the study of culture, and by proposing venues for future research.
CITATION: Luca Carbone & Jonathan Mijs (2022) Sounds like meritocracy to my ears: exploring the link between inequality in popular music and personal culture, Information, Communication & Society, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2021.2020870