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Are We Really Brainwashed into Loving Bad Pop Songs?

Updated on September 26, 2015

A recent article on claims we're being brainwashed into loving bad songs by the music industry. How exactly does the music industry accomplish this? Supposedly by using payola. According to Tom Barnes in his article "The Music Industry Is Literally Brainwashing You to Like Bad Pop Songs — Here's How" if we hear a song often enough we'll start to love it. Instead of making songs the public will love the music industry creates terrible songs and then ensures they're overplayed, so we'll all start loving them. And how was this determined? Using brain scans of course.

"Research suggests that repeated exposure is a much more surefire way of getting the general public to like a song than writing one that suits their taste. Based on an fMRI study in 2011, we now know that the emotional centers of the brain — including the reward centers — are more active when people hear songs they've been played before. In fact, those brain areas are more active even than when people hear unfamiliar songs that are far better fits with their musical taste. This happens more often than you might think. After a couple dozen unintentional listens, many of us may find ourselves changing our initial opinions about a song — eventually admitting that, really, Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" isn't as awful as it sounds."

How Dark Horse Undermines Barnes' Argument

Unfortunately for Barnes, Dark Horse is the worst example he could have used to try to make his point. The song was originally released as a promo single. It proved to be hugely successful months before it was officially sent to radio. It debuted at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #4 on the Hot Digital Songs (HDS) chart as a promo single long before it's official release. Due to popular demand radio stations picked up Dark Horse and dropped the official single Unconditionally. It's a perfect example of a song loved by the public despite what the label released.

"In response to the unexpected success of "Dark Horse", Capitol Records executive VP Greg Thompson stated: "Katy's well aware of [the success of] 'Dark Horse'" and "It might be the next single. We're watching it – and certainly appreciating the airplay – while still wanting 'Unconditionally' to have a full run". In December, following the success of the song as a promotional single, it was chosen as the third official single from Prism."

If you're like me you're thinking "No the more I hear a song I hate the more I hate it." I often get repeated exposure to songs I hate thanks to having kids who love them. Listening to Dark Horse and Boom Clap feel like torture to me and I become more miserable the more I'm forced to listen to them. Maybe I'm a rare exception but I don't think so.

Barnes goes so far as to claim repeated play has a Stockholm Syndrome like effect thanks to a piece by Mike Rugnetta on PBS.

"PBS' Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta explains, it's akin to a musical "Stockholm syndrome," a term used originally by criminologist Nils Bejerot to describe a phenomenon in which victims of kidnapping may begin to sympathize with their captors over time."

Here's the problem with Barnes' argument. I follow radio charts and callout research as a hobby and his argument falls apart when you watch how songs really become hits. The payola argument is problematic because it goes against how radio works when it comes to determining what gets played.

Major labels do engage in payola or pay-to-play. It's illegal for record labels to pay radio stations to play songs but they use a loophole in the law to do it anyway. They pay independent promoters who in turn pay the stations to play particular songs. However, it's not in the radio industry's interests to play songs their listeners hate. Radio stations use listener callout research to determine what their listeners like and don't like. Callout research helps them determine what to play more and what to drop.

The listening public decides what songs become huge on radio
The listening public decides what songs become huge on radio

Callout Research

The #1 song on Mediabase's Callout Research report as I write this is Stay With Me by Sam Smith. The audience reaction to the song is 68.4% positive and 24% negative. 35% list it as a favorite song. The song at the bottom of the chart V. 3005 by Childish Gambino is 54.4% positive, 27.7% negative and only 14.9% list it as a favorite song. As Mediabase notes "Songs must be at least 60% familiar to qualify." In other words, songs don't get listed until 60% of those surveyed have heard them. Songs can get dropped before reaching a high level of familiarity with listeners. Shower by Becky G is falling on radio with only 78.7% familiarity. Compare this to 97.2% for Stay With Me. Radio will often give a song a chance to become more familiar to listeners. Shower was given a chance but with only 56.1% positive, a high negative at 29.9% and only 18.8% listing it as a favorite it failed to make it into the top 10 on radio. The top 10 are the songs that get played to death.

Radio stations make most of their money from advertising. Advertisers will pay more for stations with bigger audiences. It's not in the interests of stations to drive away their listeners by playing songs over and over in the hope listeners will start to love them. If callout research finds too many people hate a song it'll get dropped from rotation pretty quickly regardless of how much the labels pay-to-play. Labels won't continue payola payments for songs hardly anyone wants to buy anyway.

Is Royals by Lorde which spent 9 weeks at #1 a bad song? It was critically acclaimed, huge on both pop and alternative radio and won a Grammy

If a song is popular in callout research, it'll receive more spins and be picked up by more stations. The masses have to love a song before it will rise to the top of the daily radio charts. Songs that get a lot of positive feedback may get 300+ spins per day while less popular songs may get 20 to 50. It's the public that determines whether a song becomes popular not the labels or radio stations. They wish it was that easy.

Take Katy Perry as an example. She tied Michael Jackson for the most #1's from one album. Every single from her Teenage Dream album was a top 5 hit. When she released her follow-up album Prism, Capitol Records poured a huge amount of payola into promoting it. She's their biggest artist after all. The first single Roar was massive. The second single Unconditionally initially rose rapidly on radio receiving 300+ spins increases per day. Then the song stalled. The public wasn't reacting well to it based on callout research. Stations either lowered spins or dropped it altogether. With the song struggling on iTunes, it wouldn't have been in the financial interests of Capitol Record to pump increasing amounts of payola into a song the buying public and radio listeners clearly didn't like. Having stations play Unconditionally over-and-over didn't make listeners fall in love with it.

"There's real neuroscience behind the strategy: If you hear something enough, you'll start to like it."

Unconditionally by Katy Perry and #Beautiful by Mariah Carey never became smash hits despite initially receiving heavy radio play

Unfortunately this "real neuroscience" didn't work for Katy Perry with Unconditionally. It also didn't work for #Beautiful by Mariah Carey and Miguel, which had a radio deal. The song was played hourly for days after it's release. When the deal ended it grew on radio for a short time. When it became clear the song wasn't popular with listeners it was quickly dropped. Playing the song hourly didn't turn it into a hit.

Timber by Pitbull and Kesha took off quickly on big stations. However it was oddly ignored by the big Los Angeles pop and HAC stations for weeks after it's release. The song was exploding in other parts of the US but receiving almost no play in the massive Southern California market. It was only when the song proved to be hugely popular with the public in other parts of the nation that it got picked up. Timber was released on October 7th, 2013 but didn't hit the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 until January 18th, 2014. Songs are typically out for weeks or even months before they smash and are all over radio.

The idea there's a conspiracy to push songs onto the public doesn't stand up when you examine the radio and chart histories of individual songs.

It's difficult for record labels to determine what songs will or won't smash
It's difficult for record labels to determine what songs will or won't smash

It's easy to believe if a song is played to death it's being pushed on you by big media. But it doesn't work like that because these songs are often out for weeks or even months before you start hearing them over-and-over. American radio stations test songs over weeks. Most songs become huge weeks or months after their initial release. They won't be all over radio immediately after release unless they have a deal to be played hourly for a certain number of days. But few smash songs have deals like this. They get tested by the stations first. If the public loves them they get more spins. If they don't they get dropped.

Barnes' theory falls apart when you examine how songs become big. This is something that's easy to do because radio charts and callout research are available and easily monitored by anyone. So no, there's no conspiracy to push songs we hate on us until we love them. It's the public that determines what gets played to death.


You can read Tom Barnes' argument at

You can monitor callout results at and radio charts at


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    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 2 years ago

      EZ Swim Fitness,

      I love corny music in moderation myself.

    • EZ Swim Fitness profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 2 years ago from Southern Wisconsin


      Oh, how fun! I love corny music and I thought I was in the minority! So I am brainwashed - as long as I am having fun! :)

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 3 years ago


      Even when you look at callout scores, negative reactions to popular songs are usually in the 20-35% range. So many people who hear these songs still don't like them.

    • profile image

      STC 3 years ago

      I love maybe 10% of songs on the radio, hate maybe 10%, like maybe 20% and am neutral about the rest. yeah, I might like some songs more after hearing them more. Others I get sick of after hearing them a lot even if I liked them at first. That's fairly normal I think. No one loves every big hit. How does this brainwashing idea accounts for that????

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 3 years ago


      I'm not so sure drugs are the problem. Some people are so anti-pop, they can't fathom that many people genuinely love pop music. So they have to come up with excuses to explain why it's popular. They thing is many of these people do like pop music in the form of classic pop hits or non-mainstream pop acts. It's just modern mainstream pop they take issue with because they want to believe their taste is superior to that of the listening masses. This is not to say pop fans are any better. They label anyone who likes indie, alt, or classic rock as a hipster who listens to music they don't really like just to be cool. As someone who enjoys pop, alt, indie and classic music, I think both sides are very childish. Snobs on both sides would be happier if they accepted that others have different musical taste than they have.

    • profile image

      Valerie 3 years ago

      I love RJs point but it can't work like that. People don't listen to much radio anymore. If people listen for 15 to 20 mins a day only, radio programmers want to ensure they're hearing at least a couple of big songs that testing and research has proven is popular with their listeners. That's why radio has become so repetitive. Most people aren't listening enough to become tired of hearing the same songs. This is aggravating for people who have jobs where radio runs all day bc they get sick of hearing the same songs 10 times a day.

      Barnes doesn't get that. He seems to think radios strategy is throw enough mud at a wall and see what sticks. Radio's a dying medium that can't afford to drive away people who still listen to them. So they carefully test songs to ensure people like them before they go into heavy rotation.

      Shodan777 needs to stop using drugs if that's the effect pop songs are having on him or her.

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 3 years ago


      Audiences often react very well to something that's very different to everything else they're hearing. It can sound new and fresh. The explosion of Adele and indie pop a couple of years ago are great examples. The stations may be wary of taking the chance something very different will grow on their audiences though. Typically the public demands new and different first then radio offers it to them. It's listener led.

    • profile image

      RJ 3 years ago

      Its funny. I would accuse the radio business of doing the opposite. They play it way to safe. There to worried about their listeners liking whts played they don't take chances and give different kinds of songs and sounds exposure. I'd love to see radio experiment more and expose their listeners to things they might not like at first with the hope it grows on them. But radio only plays what listerners take an immediate liking to and drop anything that doesn't click immediately.

    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 3 years ago

      Pop music is hardly evil. Like every genre there's good and bad pop music. People can still hate songs that get stuck in their heads. Getting stuck in your head doesn't equate to liking or wanting it. And it's easy to turn off songs you don't like. Then it won't have that effect anymore.

    • profile image

      Shodan777 3 years ago

      Because Music is a powerful form of hypnosis , and that's why pop music is so evil cause you hear it and immediately its stuck in your head and you can't get rid of the tune , believe it or not but music is very much like hypnotism mingled with magic