Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Song Remains the Same

Are young people more narcissistic today and is this narcissism expressed through popular music? JB heps us to a piece in the New York Times called A New Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Hit Lyrics:

Now, after a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.

“Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” Dr. DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, says. His study covered song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 and controlled for genre to prevent the results from being skewed by the growing popularity of, say, rap and hip-hop.

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.”

Initially, I was inclined to accept the thesis. These kids today with their self-centered song lyrics can’t compare with the altruistic community that came of age in the Eighties.

However, upon further review I find reasons for skepticism. Just off the top of my head I immediately came up with four songs from the Eighties that refute the notion that we were all sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya together:

Don't You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds

Dancing with Myself by Billy Idol

The exerable What About Me by Moving Pictures

And who can forget the 1989 classic Me So Horny by Two Live Crew?

Now you can say that these four counterexamples don’t disprove the overall trend, but it’s as legitimate an argument as the three supporting examples cited in the article. And besides weren’t the Eighties—the Age of Reagan—supposedly the “Decade of Greed?”

What I find most interesting about this discussion about whether today’s “Gen Y” (or whatever the hell they’re calling them now) and their music is more narcissistic than Gen X is that it ignores the one generation that truly was and continues to be all about themselves. You can study music lyrics all you want, but you will never convince me that there has ever been a more narcissistic generation of Americans than the Baby Boomers.