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Small talk is trivial for meteorologists—that rare subset of the human race that really likes talking about the weather. So in 2012, when a group of meteorologists and climate scientists got together for a meeting, they decided they needed to spice things up: rather than discussing their favorite barometric pressure or relative humidity, the climate wonks explored their artistic sides by listing their top weather-themed pop songs.
The icebreaker inspired a true scientific endeavor: a hunt for the influence of weather patterns not in the atmosphere, but in pop music. A team of scientists searched through more than 15,000 karaoke songs to learn how people connect to and are inspired by the weather, says Sally Brown, the lead author of a paper that details the quest.
As the scientists found, many musicians appeal to weather as “kind of an escapism,” says Brown. By focusing on the warmth of the sun or the sting of the rain, crooners can distract from their troubles.
In “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, for instance, George Harrison grows confident that everything will be “all right”—not due to any change in his circumstances, but because the sun has come out. In her 1962 hit, Carole King misses her lover so much that, regardless of the weather, “it’s raining in [her] heart.”
Of the 15,000 pop songs in the karaoke database they analyzed, the meteorologists found that 419 mentioned the weather—and less than half of those (190 songs) featured it as a major theme. The authors analyzed those 190 songs further, and, like so many showers, the results were scattered. Sun and rain were referenced most frequently—“Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone)”; “Come Rain Or Come Shine”; “Purple Rain”—followed by the seasons and wind—“Winter Wonderland”; “Against The Wind”.
Often the connection is stylistic: sunshine for happy; rain for sad. But the researchers found that the lyrical associations sometimes extended beyond simple metaphor, and, in some cases might even serve as a (somewhat tenuous) historical climate record.
In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, many major storms hit North America, including Hurricane Hazel, which killed more than 1,000 people from Haiti to Toronto in 1956; and Hurricane Betsy, which did US $1-billion in damage along the Gulf Coast in 1965. Nearly three-quarters of the weather-related karaoke songs written in those decades mention storms, wind, rain, or hurricanes, compared to just 46 percent of weather songs in the less stormy 1970s and 1980s.
There’s no real way to know what inspired a given musician, but it’s plausible that a blustery climate would inspire blustery songs. “Stormy weather is a bit unusual, so people are specifically inspired at that point,” suggests Brown.
Meteorologists deal in the science of uncertainty, and the researchers admit that their song set is limited and not entirely predictive. After all, there are many popular songs that never enter the annals of karaoke hits. To counter this bias, they are currently accepting submissions for weather-related songs they may have missed.
Clearly, musicians seem aware of the weather around them. But for now, the full extent of this climatological inspiration is likely to remain elusive. “The answer,” as Bob Dylan might say, “is blowin’ in the wind.”