Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Another Visit From Captain Obvious

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.”

Now, all this has to be placed in the context of a culture in which Andy Warhol's "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes" seems surprisingly less of a throw-off absurdity and more of a piquant observation.

Think about it: you're reading my blog, which I'm writing because I have a lot to say and all of the Internet to say it in. I get a couple of hundred hits a day. If I was forced to go out and find a publisher, I might sell a couple of hundred books in a lifetime, after getting laughed out of nearly every publisher in town. I'd probably be humiliated into silence (altho knowing me, I'd never shut up, but I digress...) 

I get to be narcissistic, in other words, because it's available. Similarly, I can display my limited photographic talents on Flickr and Qoop (see sidebar) or my even more limited talents on YouTube. I'm planning on rolling out a radio station sometime this year...errrr, that's supposed to be a secret between you and I, K? I may even record an album.

None of which will be commercially viable. It's all a vanity project (except my book but that's a different column.) It's all designed to leave a mark on the culture, however dim and distant it may be.

In a world where 16 year old girls debase themselves and embarass their families and get pregnant just to have a season on television, where parents will pimp their toddler children out for beauty contests, or subject their brood to the scrutiny of reality television, it's no wonder that song lyrics have become more narcissistic.

It's what sells. It's what creates role models. Ask William Hung, who managed to squeeze a minor sensation out of being a horrible singer of a song that was carefully focus grouped and overproduced for another factory-made "artist". Or the cast of Jersey Shore, who don't seem to get the fact that the joke is not near them, but is them.

Yes, plenty of great songs are about narcissism, usually in the context of a relationship. I think of The Beatles In My Life, an overview of a surprisingly mature songwriter who is trying to tell a woman, "Listen, I've gotten laid a lot, but baby, you're the greatest!" Or Leslie Gore's You Don't Own Me, perhaps the original I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.

And perhaps this trend is part of why music sucks lately. Certainly, it feeds into the mass culture of "I got mine, Jack" that gave rise to the Teabaggers (thank a lot, emo!) If we can't have a great anthem to mass participation like All We Are Saying (Is Give Peace A Chance) because we're writing songs about "Fuck you, you're losing me," then how in the hell can we gather around a movement and progress?