Robbie Williams: Singles performance mapped against sentiment
I’VE never been the greatest fan of pop star Robbie Williams but I must admit I was genuinely pleased when his latest single and album both debuted at the top of the charts earlier this month.
Despite enjoying considerable chart success, the Tunstall-born singer has struggled with problems of drink, drugs and the excesses of a 25-year career in the music industry.
Although I’ve not closely tracked a career which has seen him shift a colossal 70 million records worldwide, it’s been hard not to avoid reading or hearing the stories about his sex life and claims that he’s piling on the pounds, back on drugs or developed another obsession over something such as UFOs and the paranormal.
It’s hardly surprising that Robbie, like many instantly-recognisable megastars, has strictly managed his media profile, avoiding the spotlight between releases and regularly using his lyrics and performance to speak out instead.
For instance, who can forget the video for Rock DJ in which the flesh was literally stripped from his bones in an angry attack on the music industry and its insatiable demands?
Contrast that with the soaring beauty of Angels in the early days of Robbie’s solo career or the upbeat and supremely catchy single Candy.
Given that Robbie has always appeared to wear his heart on his sleeve, it got me thinking. Is there a correlation between Robbie’s the chart performance of his singles and their lyrical content?
So what I’ve done is try to create a chart – which you can see on www.thisisstaffordshire.co.uk – mapping each of his singles along with the highest position in the charts as well as a measure of its positivity.
In order to compile the dataset, I went to Wikipedia to find Robbie’s singles discography and then grabbed the lyrics from the www.lyricsmania.com website.
The tricky bit was trying to objectively measure the level of positive sentiment in each song.
It’s something that we as humans have evolved as an essential skill to accurately identify the emotions of another person. These skills are so refined that we can use them to pick up on subtle cues which might indicate someone is either fibbing or at least being ironic. Scientists and software engineers have in recent years created tools that allow computers to emulate some of this ability to measure sentiment.
These tools, while no where near as sophisticated as a person, are now being used in a variety of applications. For instance, there are companies which sift through Twitter searching for updates about companies publicly traded on stock exchanges. This information is then analysed and a positive view on a company can form the basis of stock being bought or sold.
I essentially plugged the lyrics into a freely-available sentiment analysis tool on the www.text-processing.com website and then plotted the results in the chart.
So is there a concrete link between Robbie’s lyric and chart performance? The short answer would appear to be no.
Despite his demons, Robbie has always been a strong chart performer and has hit the top 10 on almost every occasion.
Even during the relative doldrums between 2004 and 2009, he has been able command a solid chart position – even though the analysis shows a cooling in the sentiment of his lyrics such She’s Madonna and Morning Sun.
That said, it does show the uplifting song structure of Angels is matched by Robbie’s open-eyed and honest sentiment towards his mum.
And it also shows that Candy is – upon this analysis – his most positive song since Radio in 2004.
Is this positivity do with his relationship with wife Ayda and his newborn baby? I don't know.
Of course, there is at least one caveat to this view of Robbie’s lyrics. The main problem is that I’m not sure exactly how the tool measures positivity and whether it can discern the nuances of sarcasm and irony.
To illustrate this, I ran the analysis on other upbeat songs such as Accentuate The Positive, I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing or Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi.
While the second song – which was used in an advert to shift millions of bottles of Pepsi – is unabashed in its sunny disposition, the other songs lose out because of phrases by couching positive sentiment downbeat words such as ‘Eliminate the negative’.
Even with this limit, I can see how such analysis might yield insights where people are commenting, such as an election or talent show such as Stoke’s Top Talent.
David Elks is aggregation co-ordinator and data journalist for Northcliffe Digital.