Bowie in Numbers

by Adam Drazsky

What goes into lyrics, and what does a musician’s writing reveal about their artistic development? David Bowie’s near five-decade career had its ups and downs, matched, in striking ways, by changes in word count, polarity, and subjectivity in his lyrics. Using the Textblob library for Python and data from the Genius lyrics API, I calculated average polarity and subjectivity per album: respectively, how positive or negative Bowie’s lyrics are, and their ratio of narrative to emotional content. The program I wrote analyses each song, groups them by album, and spits out averages: this approach yields some easily-digestible data, but has some limitations, which I note below. Still, set against Bowie’s total album sales, these figures form an interesting story about the artist’s career.

In the following graphs, the black line represents estimates of Bowie’s UK and US sales based on his legal proceedings, Soundscan figures, and Certification levels.

Word Count

All of Bowie’s most successful albums—Ziggy Stardust, Let’s Dance, and Blackstar—have around 250 words per song. A comfortable amount for the Rock genre, it enables narrative complexity while keeping each song easy to sing along to. The starkest contrast in word count is between the albums Station to Station and the Berlin Era: half of Low’s tracks are instrumentals, marking Bowie’s first major shift from his Pop-Rock roots into the experimental realm.

Polarity

Ziggy Stardust and Let’s Dance are two of Bowie’s most positive works, with a corresponding impact on sales. Especially in Ziggy Stardust, Bowie reveals his ability to reflect the cultural zeitgeist: with tracks such as “Rock ‘n Roll Suicide” he lifts his listeners from post-hippie era industrial cynicism with the repeated sound of “Let’s turn on and be not alone / Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful”. The album’s success suggests it worked. The later lack of sales for Station to Station (January 1976), despite its high polarity, might be attributed to the 1973-1975 recession in the West, bringing the high surrounding Bowie’s earlier works to a close.

in Japan, 1979. © Sukita

It’s no coincidence that Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust in 1973, ushering in the gaunt, pseudo-fascist Thin White Duke, a polar opposite to the glitzy Ziggy persona. Bowie’s career remained relatively low in both sales and polarity (probably due to the avant-garde leanings of the Berlin Era) until the release of Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance, two very catchy and danceable albums. Scary Monsters presents another major shift in Bowie’s artistic development; having left Berlin with a portfolio of experimental works, Bowie set his sights on the neon lights of Japan, an influence present well into Let’s Dance. Blackstar is understandably an outlier: themes of mortality and rebirth make for a conflicted album, and the rise of music streaming boosts Blackstar’s sales in a way unique to Bowie’s previous albums.

Subjectivity

Bowie’s most successful albums aren’t particularly subjective nor objective, hovering around 45-55% subjectivity: that is, they are mostly balanced between narrative and emotional content. “Heroes” remains an extreme in Bowie’s catalogue with the most narrative-driven lyrics, possibly a consequence of its environment: cold, fractured Berlin.

at the Berlin Wall, 1987. © Denis O’Regan/Getty

Limitations & Possibilities

Painting with such broad strokes leaves certain details by the wayside, and there are a number of limitations to consider. Most importantly, because these figures are averaged across entire albums, there is no provision for contrast: whether an album is on the whole extreme or otherwise (i.e full of both songs with very positive or negative words, or simply neutral), is lost. In any case, a purely numbers-driven focus cannot factor in things like writing technique. Do Bowie’s best-selling albums tend to look more positive to the algorithm because they’ve been composed in traditional ways, with phrases that are easy for Textblob to process? Can the program handle symbolic, experimental lyrics? What about troubled subtexts beneath words that, by themselves, are generally positive? Obviously, mathematics can’t answer all our questions.

© Roger Bamber

Conclusion

Lyrical content reflects an artist’s development: that much is obvious. For a musician of such artistic diversity, word count, polarity, and subjectivity are three factors seriously worth looking at. In Bowie’s case, his lyrical polarity rises and falls with the breaths of the cultural moment: it is his finger on its pulse, tracking its highs and lows, reflected in his sales. Subjectivity seems to reflect his degree of experimentation: generally speaking, the lower, the more leftfield, with some exceptions such as Blackstar (experimental, but emotive).

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