Baby Names and the Value on Distinctiveness

March 15, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Namerology, the former Baby Name Voyager (here),is a great resource for anyone interested in graphs showing trends in baby names in the US. It uses the data from the Social Security Administration, but it’s graphs are much better than those you can create on the SSA Website. For instance, it allows you to compare names.

I wanted to explore the idea that the diversity of names is increasing. The most popular names today are not nearly as dominant as popular names in the past. It’s like TV shows. The ratings or share-of-audience of today’s most popular shows are numbers that twenty years ago would have marked them for cancellation. Compare the most popular name for girls born in the 1990s,  Emily, with her counterpart in the 70s, Jennifer.

 Jennifer’s peak was three times higher than Emily’s.

Jennifer also stacks up well against the top name of the sixties (Lisa) and of the eighties (Jessica).

Jennifer’s popularity was extraordinary. Jessica was at the top for nine of the eleven years from 1985 to 1995. And Lisa held top spot for eight years, 1962 - 1969. But Jennifer was number one for fifteen years, 1970-1984. We will probably never see her like again.

But then along comes Mary. The numbers for Mary back in the day dwarf those for Jennifer at the height of her popularity.

I read this graph to mean that the way we think about names has changed. Today, we just assume that you don’t want to give your kid the same name that everyone else has. You want something that different, but not too different. But a hundred years ago, distinctiveness was not important criterion for parents choosing a name. Year in year out, the girls name most often chosen was the same year in year out — Mary.

Names may be only part of a more general change in ides about children. Demographer Philip Cohen (here) speculates that compared with parents in the early 1900s, parents in the latter half of the twentieth-century saw each child as a unique individual. After all, children were becoming scarcer.  From 1880 to 1940, the average number of children per family declined from 4.2 to 2.2, And while Mary remained the most popular name throughout that period, its market share declined from over 30,000 per million to about 20,000 per million.

The real shift starts in the 1960s. It may have been part of the general rejection of old cultural ways. But this was also the end of the baby boom. With new birth-control (the pill), having children became more a matter of choice. Family size declined even further. Each child was special and was deserving of a special name.

On Becoming a Beatles Listener

March 5, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the spring of 1964, I was getting a haircut in a barbershop in Tokyo. In the background a radio was playing American rock and pop. The sound was familiar even though I didn’t recognize any of the songs. I didn’t know any of the latest hits because I had spent the previous seven months in a small town up in the mountains. The family I was living with may have had a radio, but I cannot recall ever hearing it or what it played. The music I would hear on the variety shows on TV was all Japanese pop or sometimes Japanese versions of American hits. To this day, there are certain songs that were popular then — “Devil in Disguise” or “Bye-bye Birdie” — which in my mind’s ear I still hear in Japanese rather than English.

As I sat there, not really paying attention to the music, I realized that the song now playing was repeating the words “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So this is it, I thought. This must be the Beatles that I’ve been reading about.  The Japan Times, the English-language newspaper that came daily to the house, had run stories about them. It also showed the Billboard Top-20 each week, and I would see Beatles songs in several of the top slots. But in that barbershop that day, to me they sounded like the rest of the music that had been coming from the radio — conventional rock and roll.

I thought of that moment last month as I was reading David Brooks’s New York Times piece “What the Beatles Tell Us About Fame” (here).  “How did the Beatles make it?” Brooks asks, and he gets the answer right. Partly. He sees that it’s not just about the music. Whether that music gets heard — recorded, distributed, played on the radio — depends on lots of non-musicians.

But hearing is not the same as liking. So how do the people who heard this music decide that they liked it, and liked it a lot? Brooks has a simplistic model for this process. “If a highly confident member of your group thinks something is cool, you’ll be more likely to think it’s cool,” as though the Beatles happened because influencers (they weren’t called that in 1963) were at work promoting them. But is that how people form their judgments of music? Surely we don’t think “Cool people like this so I’ll like it too.”

To understand how so many people come to share the idea that something is really great, we need a model more along the lines of Howie Becker’s “On Becoming a Marijuana User.”  In that famous article, Becker identifies three necessary steps: learning the technique of smoking weed, learning to identify the effects, and learning to define those effects as pleasurable.

Of course, listening to rock and roll doesn’t require any special technique. But what about identifying the effects? As my barbershop experience illustrates, recognizing the Beatles is not automatic. Just as Becker’s marijuana users had to learn to perceive the effects of weed,* listeners had to learn to distinguish the Beatles sound from other music. That wasn’t the explicit goal of the people who listened to Beatles songs over and over, but it was an important side effect.

As for defining what we are hearing as great, the influence of others is not nearly so evident as it was among Becker’s pot smokers. In the diffusion of popularity, it doesn’t seem like anyone is learning or teaching. People around us are grooving to the Beatles, and so are we. Besides, millions of others have pushed these songs to the top of the charts, confirming our judgment that this stuff is the best. Popularity cascades upon itself. The more that the music becomes popular, the more of it you hear. The more familiar it becomes, the better it sounds. The process is less like instruction, more like contagion.

In November of 1963, my social geography — living in my small town in the Japan Alps — had quarantined me from the emotions that flooded Americans when Kennedy was assassinated. I did not feel what I would have felt if I had been in the US . (My 2013 post about that experience is here.)  Five months later in that barber shop, I was listening to the Beatles, but I had not yet become a Beatles listener.

* Becker was doing his research among musicians in Chicago in the late 1940s and early 50s. Marijuana back then had nothing like the potency of today’s cultivars. Yet even now, other more experienced users are important in showing the neophyte user how to ingest the drug and how to appreciate the effects. Maureen Dowd’s famous unaccompanied fling with edibles (here) is a negative case in point.