By Jeff Opperman, WWF Global Lead Freshwater Scientist
Words about nature have been slowly draining from the vocabulary of our pop culture, as reported in a 2017 paper by two psychology researchers, Selin and Pelin Kesebir.
In an op-ed in the New York Times [OJ1], I described how Taylor Swift’s two albums of 2020 — which overflow with nature-themed language and imagery — push back hard on that trend.
Being a conservation scientist, not a music critic, I decided I should apply some rigor to that claim.
So, here I describe the simple analysis that I did to test the hypothesis that those two albums (folkore and evermore) feature more nature-themed words than do typical pop songs. Using methods loosely based on those used by the Kesebirs, I calculated the percentage of nature-themed words in the lyrics of the 32 songs on the two albums (10,195 total words) and then compared that to the percentage of nature words in the first 32 songs on the Spotify playlist “Today’s Top Hits” (11,898 total words). “Today’s Top Hits” is Spotify’s most popular playlist, with 27 million followers, nearly double the second most popular.
For all songs, I copied the lyrics from common web sites for lyrics (e.g. azlyrics.com) and summed the nature-themed words, such as those that reference parks, plants, animals, the weather, or various geographic or celestial features , such as peaks, cliffs, lakes, and crescent moons. I applied some judgement; for example, I counted the word “ice” as a nature-themed word in the phrase, “A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground” but not in the phrase, “ice on my wrist” (as that is slang for jewelry).
Overall, 1.68% of Swift’s words were nature-themed, compared to 0.24% of the top hits. Thus, Swift’s lyrics feature nature-themed words seven times more frequently than the lyrics of a similarly sized sample of today’s top popular songs (and one of those songs, Ed Sheeran’s “Afterglow”, provided nearly 1/3 of all the nature words in the sample of top hits; without that one song, Swift’s frequency of nature words would have been nearly 10 times greater than in the top hits).
Beyond the proportion of nature words in the combined lyrics, we can also look at the distribution of individual songs in terms of their percentage of nature words (see infographic). Nearly two-thirds (20 of 32) of the top hits had zero nature-themed words, while only one Swift song had zero nature-themed words. Only four of the top hits (12.5% of total songs) had more than 0.5% of words that were nature-themed, whereas 25 of Swift’s songs (78%) did. Swift had five songs with more than 3.5% of words being nature themed, including “peace,” “evermore”, “seven”, “ivy” and “lakes” (the highest percentage, with 5.6%).
This distribution is illustrated in the infographic below. Each icon is one song, with the car icon representing songs with zero nature words (I don’t mean to specifically pick on cars — Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorites and he’s got some great car songs — but it seemed a good non-nature icon). The tree icon stands for a song that does include nature words, with its size scaled to the percentage of those words (ranging from 0.2% to 5.6%).
Visually, the songs from “Today’s Top Hits” are an overflowing parking lot next to a sparse woodland, while the Taylor Swift songs are a single car parked at the edge of Muir Woods.
As noted in the op-ed, these songs from Taylor Swift are not about saving nature. Rather, they are songs in which, often, the key moments of life just so happen to take place in nature. They tell stories in which characters interact with each other and the environment, observe nature, reference it, and, at times, turn to it for solace (like the lakes and peaks that offer refuge from “hunters with cell phones.”).
This subtle, simple interweaving of nature into daily life is central to how pop culture can help us reconnect with it. Writer Margaret Renkl (like Swift, a Nashvillian whose words celebrate nature), offers that as long as art, including songs, “teach us to see what we might otherwise overlook, there is a chance for change.”
We’ve been steadily losing sight of nature, its imagery slowly fading under the glare of ubiquitous blue light. The songs from Swift’s recent albums aren’t going to reverse the decline of nature, but they can help us see it more clearly, and that’s a start.
For comparison, in their much more comprehensive study the Kesebirs found that the percentage of nature words in song lyrics had declined from an average of about 1.1% in 1950 to about 0.4% in 2010. My method was similar to theirs but not exactly the same: they reviewed 6,000 songs and filtered the lyrics against a pre-defined list of nature words (e.g., a discrete set of flower names, tree names, etc.) whereas I reviewed 64 songs and could apply some judgment, such as counting the word “peaks” when it referred to mountains (the Kesebirs’ list included “mountains” but not “peaks”). My approach will result in a higher percentage of nature words than if I had directly applied the Kesebirs’ methods, so the numbers are not directly comparable.
The 32 songs from “Today’s Top Hits” are: Drivers License (Olivia Rodrigo), Anyone (Justin Bieber), Afterglow (Ed Sheeran), Monster (Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber), Golden (Harry Styles), 34+35 (Ariana Grande), Whoopty (CJ), So Done (The Kid Laroi), Better Days (Ant Clemons, Justin Timberlake), Streets (Doja Cat), My Head & My Heart (Ava Max), Lemonade (Internet Money, Don Toliver, Roddy Ricch), Take You Dancing (Jason Derulo), Lonely (Justin Bieber), Positions (Ariana Grande), Therefore I Am (Billie Eilish), Save Your Tears (The Weeknd), VIBEZ (Zayn), Treat People with Kindness (Harry Styles), Girl Like Me (Black Eyed Peas with Shakira), Barcelona (Andra), Mood (24kGldn), Intentions (Justin Bieber), Break My Heart (Dua Lipa), Train Wreck (James Arthur), Head and Heart (Joel Cory), Ice Cream (Blackpink), You Broke Me First (Tate McCrae), Holy (Justin Bieber), Watermelon Sugar (Harry Styles), Sweet Dreams (Andra).