We’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’

22 Apr

It’s time to send out a cultural SOS to Glee, Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne, and Justin Bieber: love needs your help.

One of the building blocks of language technology is named entity recognition: identifying the proper nouns and names of real-world items. For people and locations, it’s pretty easy. For organizations and products it gets a bit more ambiguous, since organizations and products often take their names from everyday items (e.g., apple). But the hardest entities to identify are titles.

One reason we need to identify titles is that they often act like single words. Take the sentence Total Eclipse of the Heart’s music video made no sense to me when I first saw it. The possessive ‘s actually belongs to the whole title, not just Heart. Similarly, it refers to the whole title, plus music video, not to a specific word like Eclipse. So if you want to understand what’s happening in texts that have titles, you have to understand how titles work.

It was when we started looking to automatically identify song titles, however, that something else found us:


From 1890 to the end of 2012, there have been 39,044 songs that have hit the top of Billboards charts (thanks, Whitburn Project!). 3,583 of these songs have love-words (love, loves, loved, lover, lovin’, luv, etc.). But for the last couple of years, the percentage of hits with love in the title has been only 30% of what it was in 1980, when people knew how to love.

graphs_Percentage_hq1980 really was a standout year for love—15.8% of all songs had love (or some variation) in their titles. Some of the tops:

  • Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love as well as Need Your Loving Tonight
  • Barbra Streisand’s Woman in Love
  • Air Supply’s Lost in Love and All Out of Love (the first one peaked in May, the second one in September)
  • Spinners had the medley Cupid/I’ve Loved You for a Long Time
  • And my chicken-eating hero, Kenny Rogers, had Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer and Love the World Away (Attention linguists and James Bond super-villains: why wipe away tears when you can love away the world?)

The mid-1950s wasn’t such a bad time, either:

  • Pat Boone was crooning Love Letters in the Sand and April Love
  • The Four Aces declared Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (when was the last time you used the word splendored?). They also had Melody of Love and A Woman in Love
  • Tab Hunter was after Young Love
  • Joan Weber demanded Let Me Go, Lover!

There were also a lot of Love me‘s running around in the mid/late 50s: Love Me Forever, Don’t Ever Love Me, (My Baby Don’t Love Me) No More, Doesn’t Anybody Love Me?, Love Me Or Leave Me, Love Me, Love Me to Pieces.

I have a special place in my heart for a couple titles from the 1970s that really went all out on love—for example, My Baby Loves Lovin’ and Lovey Dovey Kinda Lovin.

Our most recent peak was 1993, when 13.8% of the songs were lovey dovey.  The top ones:

  • Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover
  • Janet Jackson’s That’s the Way Love Goes
  • UB40’s Can’t Help Falling in Love
  • Meat Loaf was serious that I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)
  • Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight dueted a definition of what Love Is

By contrast, 2005 was the loneliest year of recent memory—only 3.2% of songs. 1999 was about the same (3.5%). 2007 was closer to 3.7%. Some examples:

  • Jennifer Lopez’s If You Had My Love (1999)
  • Mario’s Let Me Love You (2005)
  • The Game’s Hate It Or Love It (2005)
  • Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’ Lovers and Friends (2005)
  • Ludacris’ Runaway Love (2007)

The Game’s song might make you wonder about hate. Hate-related words only make it into 30 song titles across 1890-2012 (eight of which have love in them, too). The 2002-2006 time period had the highest amount of hate songs—11 in total. So a lot of hate and not a lot of love. Dark period, folks. We can say to Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, 50 Cent, Nelly, R. Kelly, Rascal Flatts, Eminem: This was your time at the top of the charts. What was your issue with love, yo? (Maroon5, Beyoncé, Phil Vassar, Avant, Justin Timberlake, Ludacrisyou kinda tried, so thanks.)

The fun spelling luv doesn’t hit the top of the charts til Joe’s I’m in Luv in 1993. It hit its stride in 2002 (What’s Luv? asked Fat Joe). You may have cause to recall I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper) in 2006 (T-Pain) or last year’s Give Me All Your Luvin’ (Madonna. Wait, what? Ah, featuring Nicki Minaj, okay). Just so you know, it is songwriters T. Nash and C.A. Stewart that especially love luv. [Update: see comments about disambiguation, but you may know these guys as The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, respectively.]

2012 was better than 2011 (5.8% vs. 4.2%), but I have to believe we can do better. Here are some of the recent hits:

  • Rihanna’s We Found Love…and then Glee’s version (41 weeks and 1 week, respectively)
  • Enrique Iglesias’ Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You) (Why do people try to trap love in parentheses?)
  • Lil Wayne’s How to Love
  • George Strait’s Love’s Gonna Make It Alright
  • Whitney’s (well, it was Dolly’s first) I Will Always Love You (3 weeks for Whitney in 2012, 1 week for the Glee Cast in 2012; 26 weeks for Whitney in 1992; 14 weeks for Dolly Parton in 1982)

Speaking of which, 9 of Whitney Houston’s 40 Billboard hits mention love. Other lovers as big or bigger than Whitney include:

  • Frank Sinatra (21 of 159 songs have love*)
  • Paul Anka (14 of 53)
  • Jackie Wilson (13 of 54)
  • Leo Reisman & His Orchestra (12 of 71)
  • The Supremes (11 of 32)
  • Jo Stafford (11 of 72)
  • Spinners (10 of 72)
  • Donna Summer (10 of 32)
  • Diana Ross (10 of 40)
  • Stevie Wonder (9 of 55)

Faith Hill has the love song that stayed up top for the longest—The Way You Love Me for 56 weeks (2001). Love Story—the 2009 Taylor Swift song stayed on the charts for 49 weeks. Only that one and The Way I Loved You (from 2008) have love in their titles—she has 59 hits altogether. Just in case you wondered, Luther Vandross’ number is 7 of 52; Marvin Gaye is 7 of 52. Point to take home: you can probably be a big lover without ever saying love.

Named entity extraction is one of the things that people ask our systems to do—that is, “find me all the proper nouns”. We are very happy to help you with this kind of information extraction. But we will probably decline requests for love extraction.


When people produce word clouds, they typically remove common words—thinking they don’t really give much information. Here’s what it looks like when we put in all the words—love is still a very big deal. There may be some other things going on. In normal speech, the is usually about 2.3 times more frequent than a but here it’s only 1.9 times bigger: 438 vs 226. That may not be a big deal, though one can imagine that definiteness and givenness are doing interesting things—that is, the first time you mention something, it’s likely new and preceded by an a. After that, it becomes definite/given. (“I saw a mermaid”. “What was the mermaid wearing?”)

At least in terms of the spoken part of COCA—which is largely from TV interviews—and you are about equally frequent. In song titles, as you can imagine, you is more frequent (1.3 times more frequent than I—438 vs. 334 instances). More to the point, it’s exceptionally rare that in normal speech you is as frequent as the (the is about 2.7 times more frequent in the spoken portion of COCA). But here they are the same. You may be able to make hay with these facts. Or not. But small words aren’t meaningless noise, which is essentially what you’re saying they are when you put them in stop lists.

Here’s the full year-by-year chart, but there’s not really a lot of data in the early years, so probably don’t look too seriously at it til the 1930s or maybe even the 1950s.


In terms of identifying song titles (and this is worrying for us), the word love is only half as useful to us now as it would have been a few decades ago. It’s a good example of how language processing systems need to adapt and change over time (something for another post).

Now for some other text analysis odds and ends. First, if you were curious, love songs tend to have longer titles—it’s not huge, though: 22.0 characters vs. 18.0 characters on average (that is significant since there’s so much data).

Also, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a little more credit to the folks who do a lot of the writing. The major song writers for 2011-2012 have been D. Carter, Max Martin, L. Gottwald, and A. Graham—these four writers have are in the writing credits for 110 of the 925 top songs from the last two years. [Update: see comments regarding disambiguation, you may know D. Carter as Lil Wayne, L. Gottwald as Dr. Luke, A. Graham as Drake]

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, putting love in your title doesn’t seem to get your song to last longer. Actually, the average number of weeks for a non-love song is 11.4 weeks, for a love song it’s 9.4 (again, since there’s so much data, this is statistically significant). You’re gonna have to love for love, not for platinum.

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)

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