It started when Dr. Nathan DeWall, a psychologist, heard the lead singer of Weezer change the lyrics to a 19th century song sung by Shakers.
Where Shakers had sung “ ’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,” Rivers Cuomo gave his own take: “I’m the meanest in the place, step up, I’ll mess with your face.” Instead of the Shaker message of love and humility, Mr. Cuomo sang over and over, “I’m the greatest man that ever lived.”
It got Dr. DeWall to wondering if the grandiosity and narcissism of the lead singer exemplifies the entire generation of teens and twenty-somethings. So DeWall and other psychologists used computers to analyze three decades of hit songs.
The study covered song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 and controlled for genre to prevent the results from being skewed by the growing popularity of rap and hip-hop.
They report a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. The word “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words. And, as they guessed, there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression positivity.
“Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” Dr. DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky says.
Defining a generation with song lyrics seems to be a stretch, 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. Other psychologists question the tests’ usefulness and say that young people today aren’t any more self-centered than those of earlier generations.
Whether or not this generation is actually narcissistic and hostile is still up for debate. But the song lyric study does also offer a a generational gauge on self-absorption.
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The researchers find that hit songs in the eighties were more likely to emphasize happy togetherness. “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people,” says Dr. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged” or one special person. Like that lead singer of Weezer mentioned before, or Justin Timberlake, who single handedly brought sexy back, or Beyonce telling folks she doesn’t think they’re ready for her jelly. Oh, yes, and don’t forget Fergie’s lovely lady lumps.
But do song lyrics really mean anything? Can’t we find song lyrics from all decades that mean all things?
Two of Dr. DeWall’s co-authors, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge, published a book in 2009 titled “The Narcissism Epidemic,” which argued that narcissism is increasingly prevalent among today’s young people.
Some psychologists are skeptical that basic personality traits can change much from one generation to the next (or from one culture to another). Even if students are scoring higher on the narcissism questionnaire, these skeptics says, it may just be because today’s students are more willing to admit to feelings that were always there.
Dr. Twenge says that may be but this new willingness to brag is in itself an important cultural change.
I don’t know if music lyrics necessarily indicate this generation is narcissistic but reality television certainly doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of teens and twenty-somethings. Of course, the same could be said for the older crowd currently starring in The Real Houswives of Whatever City. So maybe it isn’t so much a generational thing as a societal thing?
Maybe it’s just me but I think lyrics are often inaudible or ridiculously repetitive. I Whip My Hair Back And Forth! (Sorry if I just ruined your day by inserting that song into your conscience). Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon at 34 but I don’t hear quality lyrics in mainstream pop music. Half the time I don’t hear lyrics that even make sense.
That said, is this the dumbest study ever? Can we chalk it up to moral nostalgia? Isn’t some of the current generation narcissistic, some not? Some are greedy, some are not. Some parents are good parents, some are not. Some kids are awful, some are not. Just like fifty years ago? Or do you really think this generation is the Me Generation?
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