Thursday, April 28, 2011

It's me, me, me in songs of today

Lyrics now tend towards the individual and his anger, from group harmony in 80s: Study
NEW YORK: In the 1960s, songs about universal brotherhood filled the air. 'Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together try to love one another right now,' sang The Youngbloods' Jesse Colin Young

In the early 1980s, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder joined voices to sing about people of all races living together in 'perfect harmony' in Ebony And Ivory.

Today, the times are a-changin', and so are the tunes. Many seem more about me than us, more self-absorbed and angry.

Alternative rock group Weezer, for instance, borrowed the melody from a 19th-century hymn of the pacifist Shaker religion to sing 'I'm the greatest man that ever lived', over and over.

The band's lead singer and guitarist Rivers Cuomo tossed out the hymn's lyrics - ''Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free' - and replaced them with 'I'm the meanest in the place, step up, I'll mess with your face'.

When University of Kentucky psychologist Nathan DeWall first heard the Weezer track, subtitled Variations On A Shaker Hymn, a few years ago, he wondered whether America had taken a turn for the narcissistic.

Through a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: modern song lyrics seem to reveal that the young are more interested in their own lives and problems than those of others, as well as their own appearance and self-image.

'Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,' said Dr DeWall.

His study covered song lyrics from 1980 to 2007. But they were controlled to prevent the results from being distorted by the growing popularity of new genres such as rap and hip-hop.

It found a statistically significant trend towards narcissism and hostility in popular music. As expected, the words 'I' and 'me' appear more frequently along with anger-related words. At the same time, there has been a corresponding decline in 'we' and 'us' and the expression of positive emotions.

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 usefulness of such tests and say young people today are not any more self-centred than those of earlier generations.

The new study of song lyrics certainly will not 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, such as Ebony And Ivory, were more likely to emphasise happy togetherness. Group exuberance was 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'. John Lennon's '(Just Like) Starting Over' emphasised that 'our life together' was precious.

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, Beyonce exulted in how hot she looked while dancing: 'It's blazin', you watch me in amazement.'

In an analysis published last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Dr Joshua Twenge, one of Dr DeWall's co-authors, and Mr Joshua Foster looked at data from nearly 50,000 students - including the new data from critics - and concluded that narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades.

Their song-lyrics analysis shows a decline in words related to social connections and positive emotions (like 'love' or 'sweet') and an increase in words related to anger and anti-social behaviour (like 'hate' or 'kill').

'In early 80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people,' said 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.'


An analysis of the lyrics shows a decline in words related to social connections and positive emotions (like 'love' or 'sweet') and an increase in words related to anger and anti-social behaviour (like 'hate' or 'kill').