A recent New York Times article recounts one psychologist’s unlikely inspiration for deciding to analyze narcissism in popular music: the unassuming rock band Weezer. After hearing the song “Variations on a Shaker Hymn” and the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, “I’m the greatest man that ever lived,” the University of Kentucky’s Dr. Nathan DeWall couldn’t help but wonder whether the parodying of grandiosity sang by Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo was actually indicative of a broader trend.
Fast forward to March 2011, when Dr. DeWall released his new study analyzing song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 – controlled for genre to prevent the results being skewed by the growing popularity of any one variety like rap or hip-hop. As DeWall had originally surmised, those three decades showed a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. According to the study, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with a decline in “we,” “us,” and the expression of positive emotions. As he told the Times, “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before.”
My guess is that critics and proponents are going to go at least a few rounds in the ring over this study. DeWall’s linguistic analysis shows that today’s songs are more likely to be about the singer, as seen in proclamations like Justin Timberlake’s “I’m bringing sexy back,” Beyoncé’s claim on her own dancing (“It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement”) and Fergie’s self-promotion about her “humps.” But, says Jacob Ganz at NPR, social science analysis of the Billboard charts is getting out of hand. One study, he notes, found that songs whose lyrics had more words per sentence “(a measurement the researchers took to indicate ‘more meaningful themes and content’) tended to be popular during threatening social and economic conditions,” while another used Billboard’s numbers to compare beat variance to market turbulence. In other words, he scoffs, “we decided to take an opposite view: studies like this are all 100 percent correct, and you should totally reshape your life around what they say.”
It seems that scientists and non-scientists are all welcome to weigh in on this debate. Will it change the way you look at lyrics? How about the music you let your kids listen to?