Let’s Talk about Music, Baby

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There has been a lot of chatter lately about whether the development of human musical abilities can be explained via some form of sexual selection. Most of this debate has been needlessly heated/involved more insults than it warrants, so I don’t want to pick on any particular people, but all of it seems to have overlooked some basic facts:

  1. Musical success–at least as expressed in our culture–is strongly dimorphic in favor of men.
  2. Music groupies–that is, fans who want to have sex with musicians–are strongly dimorphic in favor of women (especially teens).
  3. Successful musicians have tons of sex.

Let’s run through a little evidence on each of these points. First, talent: 

Wikipedia has a nice list of musicians/bands by # of albums sold. It probably doesn’t include folks like Beethoven, but that’s for the best since it would muck up the data to have artists whose work has been for sale for so long.

The top selling artists, with 250 million or more record sales, are:

The Beatles
Elvis
Micheal Jackson
Madonna
Elton John
Led Zeppelin
Rhianna
Pink Floyd

If this list surprises you, you might want to listen to more music.

Men dominate women here 3:1.

I’m not going to list the rest of the top-selling artists on the page, but if we total them up,  I count 27 women/female bands (including two bands that are half women) and 83 male (including the two half-male bands).

Remarkably, 83:27 (and 89:29) is almost exactly 3:1.

Now, some people object that “people liking their music enough to fork over money for it” is not a good measure of “musical talent,” but it is definitely a measure of musical success. If someone is super talented but no one wants to listen to them, well, I am a bit skeptical of the claim that they are talented.

The other common response I get to this runs along the lines of “But we tested musical ability in a lab, and in our experiments, men and women did equally well.”

So?

All that shows is that you got different results; it doesn’t explain why the dimorphism exists in the real world. There are exceedingly few top-selling musicians in the world (118 on Wikipedia’s list, plus or minus a few deaths,) and it’s highly doubtful that anyone of this caliber wandered into a university music lab. It may be that musicians of average quality show no dimorphism at all (or are even biased toward women) while exceptional musicians are disproportionately male, just because there is no particular reason to assume that two different groups of people have the same range of abilities even if they have the same average. In fact, men have a greater range than women in many documented areas, like height and IQ–that is, while there are more men than women in Mensa, there are also more boys than girls in Special Ed.

Second, groupies: 

The first time Scottish concert promoter Andi Lothian booked the Beatles, in the frozen January of 1963, only 15 people showed up. The next time he brought them north of the border… it was as if a hurricane had blown into town.

The night almost unravelled when nervous local police insisted Lothian bring the Beatles on early to satisfy rowdily impatient fans, even though his bouncers were still in the pub. “The girls were beginning to overwhelm us,” remembers Lothian, now 73 and a business consultant. “I saw one of them almost getting to Ringo’s drumkit and then I saw 40 drunk bouncers tearing down the aisles. It was like the Relief of Mafeking! It was absolute pandemonium. Girls fainting, screaming, wet seats. The whole hall went into some kind of state, almost like collective hypnotism. I’d never seen anything like it.”

A Radio Scotland reporter turned to Lothian and gasped, “For God’s sake Andi, what’s happening?” Thinking on his feet, the promoter replied, “Don’t worry, it’s only… Beatlemania.” — Beatlemania: The Screamers and other Tales of Fandom

normal_fans_21.jpg.w300h282As for Elvis:

Gone are all the jerky body movements that once earned Elvis Presley the nickname of ‘The Pelvis’. Gone are all the actions that were dubbed vulgar by his critics. Presley’s stage performance is now restrained. But that did not stop 5,500 wildly excited spectators at the Bloch Arena, Pearl Harbour, Hawaii from going outrageously wild with unreserved enthusiasm last Saturday night. Never have I heard anything like it. Their enthusiasm was fever-pitch, and they were screaming non-stop from start to finish, making it impossible to identify some of the songs he sang. Whether he was talking, singing, raising his eyebrows or just breathing, it was a signal for the volume of excitement to rise higher and higher throughout this fantastic concert.

Hundreds of naval police at this U.S. Navy fortress were detailed to restrain fanatical fans from invading the stage, and they were kept busy for the entire show. …

The climax came when he closed with the all-out rocker ‘Hound Dog’, the signal for the greatest bout of unlimited pandemonium, many of the younger girls going completely berserk! Then came the trickiest part of all – ‘Operation Exit Elvis’ – to get Presley out of the building before the crowd could tear him apart from sheer adoration.

More about the screaming.

Why all of the screaming?

“Screaming girls”—that was a recurring theme in newspaper reviews of Elvis’s stage shows in 1956 and 1957. At almost every stop, the girls screamed so loud that no one could hear Elvis sing. Even the musicians on stage had trouble hearing each other. … Elvis himself explained that at times in 1957 he had to cover his ears with his hands so that he could hear himself sing. …

When I spoke with some women who had attended an Elvis concert back in 1957, most of them admitted they had screamed. …

“We screamed when he came out. I didn’t know I was going to yell and scream. I’d never done that in my whole life. It was spontaneous. …  He could excite you with his music so much. My mom’s gone; I guess she wouldn’t care if I said it now … it was like a sexual experience. It went through your body kind of like that.”

Kurt Cobain’s suicide sent weeping girls into the streets:

A rumor went around in ninth grade English class. We went home and turned on MTV to find out for sure. I remember girls crying in the hallway. …

I was watching the news when I heard, and cried. It was believable and unbelievable, all at the same time. It’s our generation’s “Where were you…?” moment. My husband, our friends, all remember where we were when we heard the news and how devastated we were. …

I was in the bathroom getting ready for school, and my dad yelled “Hey, some guy from that band you like is dead.”

I walked into the living room and saw them playing footage from one of their performances on the TV. And then they said his name. I immediately started bawling. I don’t think my mom made me go to school that day.

In Seattle:

Seattle bid goodbye to Kurt Cobain on April 10 in true grunge-rock style, bursting the ranks of a quickly organized public vigil and leaping into the nearby international fountain, a giant, water-spouting structure some 50 yards wide and ten feet deep that flanks the Flag Pavilion. … Weeping girls wore beauty pageant banners around their middles, made out of the plastic yellow, “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” tape, the same kind of tape which, three days earlier, had criss-crossed the driveway to Cobain and Courtney Love’s home.

At this point, denying that women (especially teen girls) seem to have some sort of thing for rock stars is right up there with denying that men have a thing for fertile young women with hourglass figures.

Third, the sex:

Chuck-Berry-and-Mick-Jagger
Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry

Groupie sex, oh groupie sex. How many groupies have rockstars actually boned?

Vice has an article titled Elvis was the King of Treating Women like Shit and Luring 14 Year Olds into Bed. Elvis had sex with a lot of teenagers (including Priscilla Marie, who was 14 when they met).

Cracked has a pretty good overview if you’ve never heard of groupies before:

We’ve already written about the sex tents that Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar had installed wherever he performed so that he could disappear mid-solo and indulge himself in a groupie or nine. But that’s not the only way Van Halen was entrepreneurial with his young fans. Let’s take a minute and discuss how original frontman David Lee Roth amused his roadies by sending them out on groupie scavenger hunts.

From his lofty position on the stage, Roth would instruct his roadies to dive into the crowd and collect very specific girls for him to have sex on. The lucky girl would be given a special backstage pass with the initials of the roadie who approached her written in the top corner. If that pass was then among the ones strewn on his floor the next morning, Roth would reward the roadie with a $100 bonus at breakfast the next morning, because exchanging money for sex works up an appetite.

Motley Crue came up with the, uh, creative solution of rubbing burritos on their crotches so their girlfriends wouldn’t smell the scents of groupie sex on them:

He tells Hustler magazine, “We were always f**king other chicks at the studio and backstage… We would take Tommy’s (Lee) van to a restaurant called Noggles to buy these egg burritos and then rub them on our crotches to cover the smell of the girls we had just f**ked.

Let’s hear some more about these “sex tents”:

Before they became a quartet of endless punchlines, Van Halen used to be one of the coolest bands in the world, and they demonstrated their status by having sex with every female who wandered within one mile of their powerful aura. Their career is a filthy memorial to how being in a band is a more powerful aphrodisiac than things like “not looking completely ridiculous,” …

One tour saw the band build a tent directly beneath the stage specifically for Sammy Hagar’s erection. During the mid-show 20-minute guitar solos Eddie Van Halen would launch into each night, Hagar would disappear to the tent and discover a group of naked fans waiting to swallow his penis.

Mick Jagger, by the way, has (at least) eight children via five different women.

Look, I feel a little silly having to spell out in great detail the fact that rock stars get laid a lot. You probably feel a little silly reading it, yet there are people who seem hellbent on arguing that there’s no particular evidence in favor of sexual selection for musical talent.

And no, you can’t explain this away by saying that musicians are “famous” and that women want to have sex with all sorts of famous people. Donald Trump is famous, but he doesn’t have sex tents. Leonardo diCaprio is famous and has legions of fans, but as far as I know, he also doesn’t have sex tents.

I agree that we can’t definitively prove how musical talent evolved among the first humans, (because we don’t have time machines,) but the correlation between sex and music today, in our own society, is overwhelming. A claim that it didn’t have similar effects on our ancestors needs to explain what changed so radically between then and now.

Likewise, we can’t assume that just because music works like this in our own society, it must also work this way in every other society. But conversely, just because something doesn’t work in one society doesn’t imply it doesn’t work in every society. There are a lot of groups out there, and some of them are obviously weird in ways that are’t relevant to everyone else. Some people, for example, like to dress up like anthropomorphic animals and go to conventions. We should be cautious about over-generalizing from small examples. Sure, there might be a random tribe somewhere that with weird traditions like killing any women who see a musical instrument being played, but these tribes generally have fewer people in them than one concert’s worth of screaming Elvis fans.

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