Michelle Napierski-Prancl

When she was a child, Professor of Sociology Michelle Napierski-Prancl rolled her eyes when teachers, coaches or other adults would say her name, then immediately break into song: “Michelle, ma belle, these are words that go together well …” 

“Now, I think it’s great to be connected to the Beatles,” she laughs. 

And in a way, having a name in common with a hit song has led to her being sought out by The Boston Globe and other news outlets as the go-to expert on baby name trends.

It started in 2016, when she published “Brandy, You’re a Fine Name: Popular Music and the Naming of Infant Girls from 1965-1985” in the journal Studies in Popular Culture.

“There wasn’t a lot of research on how we name children,” Napierski-Prancl said. ”I decided to see if there’s any kind of relationship with music.”

She examined the Billboard Hot 100 weekly rankings of the most popular songs from 1965 through 1985 against the Social Security administration’s annual lists of the most popular baby names, concentrating on songs with female names in the titles and the popularity of that name five years before and five years after the song reached the Billboard list.  

“You see a pattern of baby names for girls going up in popularity based on songs, and this is an important shift,” she continued. “There used to be more naming traditions related to religion, ethnicity, and family heritage. I think the ’60s to the ’80s is important because there’s a real shift in our culture in terms of challenging traditional norms.”

Professor Napierski-Prancl now regularly fields calls from journalists, bloggers, and podcasters asking her to weigh in on everything from  Why are ‘Olivia’ and ‘Noah’ so popular? to  “Illegal” baby names.

“Of all my research, this is what gets the most attention,” said Napierski-Prancl, who is also the author of Mothers Work: Confronting the Mommy Wars, Raising Children, and Working for Social Change; contributing author and co-editor of Persevering During the Pandemic: Stories of Resilience,Creativity and Connection; 2023 recipient of Russell Sage’s Susan Warren Beatty Faculty Award for superior creativity and success in research; and faculty director of The Women’s Institute at Russell Sage College.

“I think it’s because we are tied to our names,” she said, comparing the interest in her work to the feeling people have when they find a souvenir with their name on it. 

“You get a little bit of a thrill, because it’s your sense of identity, right? This sense of who you are. We like to see our name.” 

Pop Culture and Baby Names, Then and Now 

The title of “Brandy, You’re A Fine Name” is an homage to the song that Napierski-Prancl found to have the biggest impact on a name’s popularity: “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass.

But not every song with a female name influenced a name’s popularity, said Napierski-Prancl. 

“Not Rhonda or Sharona,” she continued, referencing “Help Me Rhonda” by The Beach Boys, and “My Sharona” by The Knack and recalling a funny moment when she shared this on a conference panel and learned that a fellow panelist was the Sharona’s former roommate.

In the future, Napierski-Prancl is interested in mapping the popularity of the name Harrison with the popularity of actor Harrison Ford and Star Wars, and she is also curious about whether sites like ancestry.com are influencing people when they do choose family names. 

“I’d like to talk to more people about their names, too.” she said. “Do you like your name? Do you have a nickname? How do people respond when you say your name? How did you choose your children’s names? Did you feel pressure to use a name that you didn’t want to use? ”

“This is something that’s of interest to people and it’s good to look at not-so-heavy topics once in a while,” she said. “There’s lots of love and family history and culture that’s associated with names and babies bring pride and joy.”

Articles, Podcasts and More Featuring Professor Napierski-Prancl’s Baby-Name Research

Listen to “Illegal baby names: How pop culture influences naming” on the Something Offbeat podcast. 

Read “Say My Name: A child of immigrants discovers her surprisingly American name story,” a capstone project by a University of Southern California journalism student.

Read “What if my parents had chosen Shaq or Apollo?” in the Herald-Whig (Quincy, Illinois).

Read “The Name Game” in Moda Magazine, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s life and style publication.

Listen to “What’s In A Baby Name? A Pop Song” on the Cool Weird Awesome podcast. 

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