Today’s Times has a piece on a psychologist’s theory about song lyrics of the current day being proof that we are all self-obsessed narcissists. The psychologist who came up with the theory, Nathan DeWall, was apparently inspired to embark on this quest by Weezer’s “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn),” which uses the mournfully humble Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” as its melodic base but spangles the tune with lyrics that are alternately self-aggrandizing and threatening. Despite the idea of someone taking a later-period-Weezer song at lyrical face value being somewhat dubious, and furthermore despite the 360-degree relationship between extreme narcissism and toxic self-loathing that one would think any fan of Rivers Cuomo would be very aware of, DeWall continued on with his digging. He was aided by a team of psychologists and a computer, which is a great idea because a machine will never miss a literary point, right?
Defining the personality of a generation with song lyrics may seem a bit of a reach, but Dr. DeWall points to research done by his co-authors that showed people of the same age scoring higher in measures of narcissism on some personality tests. The extent and meaning of this trend have been hotly debated by psychologists, some of whom question the tests’ usefulness and say that young people today aren’t any more self-centered than those of earlier generations. The new study of song lyrics certainly won’t end the debate, but it does offer another way to gauge self-absorption: the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The researchers find that hit songs in the 1980s were more likely to emphasize happy togetherness, like the racial harmony sought by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder in “Ebony and Ivory” and the group exuberance promoted by Kool & the Gang: “Let’s all celebrate and have a good time.” Diana Ross and Lionel Richie sang of “two hearts that beat as one,” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” emphasized the preciousness of “our life together.”
Today’s songs, according to the researchers’ linguistic analysis, are more likely be about one very special person: the singer. “I’m bringing sexy back,” Justin Timberlake proclaimed in 2006. The year before, Beyoncé exulted in how hot she looked while dancing — “It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement.” And Fergie, who boasted about her “humps” while singing with the Black Eyed Peas, subsequently released a solo album in which she told her lover that she needed quality time alone: “It’s personal, myself and I.”
Now, sure, the cited songs from the past decade are all very high-on-the-horse proclamations of self. And there are quite a few other examples of such being played on the radio right now. But the ’80s–the era of Madonna and Prince and Huey Lewis and Billy Idol and [insert your own Patrick Bateman-beloved pop star here]–as the pinnacle of togetherness and goodwill? Did “We Are The World” overcorrect for everyone else? And as far as the present day, what about “My Love” as the flip side for “SexyBack,” or… OK, so Beyoncé might be a special case when it comes to sublimating herself lyrically. But wouldn’t it make sense to compare “Celebration” to a Black Eyed Peas song that gets played at weddings and other celebrations the same way that “Celebration” was before, well, it came along?
Sure, the lyrics to “I Gotta Feeling” are stupid–some might even say “stoopid”–but they do celebrate the communal more than “My Humps,” and that song’s stuck around a lot longer in the cultural firmament as well. And the Fergie song–which, again, is not good at all, and I can’t believe I am defending it in any way because haunts way too many of my trips to the grocery store–is a breakup song, so of course it’s going to glorify the self! It’s a way to ease/deny the pain!
I could go on, but honestly, this bit of junk “it was all better in the old days, wahhh” research* is the pseudoscientific equivalent of that image floating around Tumblr that snottily compares the lyrics of “Like A G6” to the “deeper” thoughts proffered by Led Zeppelin, yet somehow forgets that the year of “Kashimir” was also the year of “Rock And Roll All Nite.” (Fun? Yes. Deep? Uh.)
Are people more narcissistic and self-absorbed in the current era than in years previous? That’s possible; there are certainly more avenues through which people can promote themselves and put down others. (And “Like A G6” is a terrible song, too.) Do I wish it was 1985 again for a lot of reasons? Sure! But picking and choosing pop songs (including, as the story’s author did, Little Jackie’s “The World Should Revolve Around Me,” which while catchy was not exactly lighting the world aflame with its self-love; it didn’t chart on the Hot 100, and neither did the Weezer song that started this whole thing) while ignoring others just seems like a big excuse for a guy who feels out of touch to feel righteous about doing so. That this was funded by a university only makes me wonder if I should have maybe gone into a different line of work as far as pursuing my professional tendency to slightly miss the point of certain lyrics.
* The story, of course, has the old “Of course, in an amateur nonscientific way, you can find anything you want in song lyrics from any era” disclaimer buried within, so you don’t take it too seriously. Whoops! Too bad.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 26, 2011