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We prefer mature-looking singers in hard economic times, study says

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Country Singers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Rick Diamond/Getty

It’s no secret that pop culture is a good reflection of the times—an era’s collective values, social climate and most pressing issues are woven into its movies, music and literature. But a new study shows an oddly specific connection between the entertainment and economy of any given decade, as reported by The Atlantic. We’re not saying the Billboard charts are the new Nasdaq or anything—but it looks like what’s in our wallets has more to do with what’s on playlists than we thought.

Psychology scholar Terry F. Pettijohn II, an expert on the interrelation between pop culture and the state of the economy, helmed a study comparing the strength of the U.S. economy to the facial features of our favorite country stars in every year from 1946 to 2010. His team of researchers came up with a “general hard times measure” of the economy based on indicators like the unemployment rate and consumer price index. Then they studied the proportions of the faces of the country artists that topped Billboard’s country charts. (Country singers were the perfect homogenous sample pool; since most of them tend to be middle-aged white males, variations in feature proportions stand out more.)

Their findings? During hard times, we prefer listening to singers with mature facial features. (Think small eyes, large chins and thin cheeks.) In 2008, for example—the peak of the Great Recession—James Otto’s “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” topped charts. And during economic upswings, we favor musicians with more baby-like features. (Think large eyes and small chins.) For instance, in 1968, a good economic year, the wide-eyed and small-chinned Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” hit #1.

So what does this say about us? The research suggests that in times of low economic security, we subconsciously seek out artists emanating maturity and wisdom—perhaps because we crave comfort and security. When the economy prospers, we gravitate towards singers whose faces project youth and innocence—which means our ongoing obsession with doll-faced Taylor Swift is starting to make a lot more sense.