It’s good to learn that the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to Steven Sack of Wayne State University and James Gundlach of Auburn University for their 1992 article, “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide”.
Thanks to the magic of JSTOR, I’ve been able to download and read this piece, which contains fine passages, like this one:
Country music may nurture suicide through its theme of alcohol abuse (Chalfant & Beckley 1977; Connors & Alpher 1989, Schaefer 1988). Lyrics often portray drinking as a normal and necessary method of dealing with life’s problems (Chalfant & Beckley 1977). Field research on drinking behavior has linked exposure to country music to increased levels of consumption of alcohol (Schaefer 1988). Alcohol consumption, in turn, has often been associated with increased suicide risk (e.g. Wasserman 1989).Additional themes in country music that might nurture a suicidal mood include financial strain and exploitation at work (Peterson 1991). Often a sense of fatalism or hopelessness is conveyed in these songs. Hopelessness is considered a key psychological state underlying suicide risk (Beck et al. 1985). A sense of bitterness and hopelessness pervades many country songs about farmers, for example. Singing of a man whose farm has been auctioned off, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band notes: “Worked this place all my life, broke my heart, took my wife. Now I got nothing to show” (Peterson 1991:8).
If Stack and Gundlach are right, then 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates can be explained with reference to the amount of country music played on local radio stations, which sounds pretty alarming to me — and that’s after controlling for other important factors, such as divorce, southernness, poverty and gun ownership.But fortunately, they’re probably not right.
In a follow-up 1994 paper (“‘An Achy Breaky Heart’ May Not Kill You”) published in the same journal, Social Forces, a team of social scientists from Utah State University led by Gary W. Mauk mounted a fierce critique of Stark and Gundlach’s findings: problems with ecological inference, they contended, were compounded by a weak causal model. It looked pretty convincing to me, anyway, on a quick skim. Here’s the best bit:
Further, while Stack and Gundlach found a relationship between amount of country music airtime and suicide rates… they have not accounted adequately for directionality… Likewise, one cannot determine (1) whether whites who are divorced tend to listen to country music, (2) whether listening to country music tends to cause their noncountry music fan spouses to divorce them, or (3) whether country music makes romantic conflict and divorce seem more normal for those individuals who are contemplating suicide, thus increasing the likelihood that they will attempt suicide…
There’s some good bibliography in both articles, too, and I’d very much like to see a copy of Richard A. Peterson, “Changing Class Consciousness in Country Music Lyrics”, a paper presented to the American Sociological Association meeting in Cincinnati in 1991.So I think it’s safe to conclude that you can all go back to watchin’ the bubbles in your beer without any risk of going on to kill yourself.
At least until the rebuttal to the rebuttal gets published somewhere, and then all bets are off.
UPDATE [10.25am]: Here’s a philosophy professor’s handout which discusses this important issue.
UPDATE [10.30am]: Oh, shit, there’s lots more literature on this subject. Hold on while I bring myself up to speed…
UPDATE [noon]: Not much to report, really, from going on to look at Maguire and Snipes (1994), Stack and Gundlach (1994) and Maguire and Snipes (1995), which record a couple of attempts to replicate the original Stack and Gundlach findings, together with a lot of bickering about the data being used, which isn’t very illuminating, nor terribly entertaining, which is a shame. There’s also a Reply to Mauk et al., by Stack and Gundlach (also 1994), which basically responds to the ecological fallacy charge by saying that Durkheim was doing exactly what they were doing in his work on suicide, and, anyway, there’s a good chance that the ecological relationships will hold up in individual-level studies. (See below).
But a follow-up paper to the debate with Snipes and Maguire, “Country Music and Suicide – Individual, Indirect, and Interaction Effects: A Reply to Snipes and Maguire”, by Stack and Gundlach (1995) perhaps pushes the debate forward a bit. Here the authors get hold of the individual level data from the General Social Survey, which, happily, began asking about music preferences in 1993, and this will help them to sidestep a chunk of Mauk et al’s criticism. Now, there may be a problem with this kind of data, as “By 1993 country’s audience had grown and, according to our critics, had become more middle class in its orientation. Any relationship between country and suicide risk factors may have disappeared, or become weaker…” But they’ll see what they can do.
The GSS figures report that 27.4% of country fans report marital disruption as opposed to only 18.4% of nonfans, and they’re quite a bit more likely (61.8% to 40.2%) to have a gun at home, too, as Table Two, “The Relationship between Musical Preference and Having a Gun in the Home, 1993” clearly shows. But with the new figures they’re using no longer suggesting a straightforward relationship between the amount of country coming through the radio and the tendency of whites to top themselves, they explore a different angle, suggesting that “country music might be associated with suicide through indirect effects, as well as interaction effects… For example, given its preoccupation with the travails of love, it is conceivable that country might be predictive of urban divorce rates”. And, yes, a simple regression shows that “country music had the strongest relationship to divorce” and that “divorce, in turn, is the strongest predictor of suicide.” My goodness. And among the divorced population itself, the authors hypothesize, those who like country music might be the ones more likely to kill themselves, as “divorced people would be the most apt to be receptive to the sad messages in such songs”. Indeed.
Well, all of these thoughts, more or less, are translated into a regression model, this time “with a multiplicative term, divorce x country music”, and this term turns out to be statistically significant, allowing them to suggest that there’s going to be a higher suicide rate than you might otherwise expect in cities which have both a high divorce rate and a lot of country music in them. (San Francisco’s the great outlier here: not much country music and a massive suicide rate. But don’t expect statistical models that work in the rest of the USA to apply to San Francisco…)
And the paper concludes by calling for more research, including fresh content analyses of country lyrics, too see if the songs are getting less sad as the middle class audience share increases, investigation into rural suicides and their listening habits, and, the paper ends, “Possibly the rap music subculture might foster a high incidence of black youth suicide in urban areas”. At least five articles in that project, I dare say.
OK. I think that’s it for the country music and suicide lit review, but if I come across more, I’ll post it soon, though probably not as yet another update, as this is getting out of hand.
UPDATE [12.30pm]: You don’t need the magic of JSTOR to get most of these articles. This page has links to most of the articles mentioned above, as part of an assignment for sociology students. Scroll down to the bottom, if you’re interested.