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Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman

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Pop Music Lyrics Don't Prove Kids' Narcissism

Posted: 05/ 4/11 05:43 PM ET

The New York Times, NPR and others have been hyping psychologist Nathan DeWall's recent claim -- based on extensive computer analysis of pop song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 -- that there is "a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music."

Because "the words 'I' and 'me' appear more frequently along with anger-related words, than 'we' and 'us' and the expression of positive emotions," DeWall further argues, contemporary youth must be more self-obsessed than those in previous generations.

Do "late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before," as Dr. DeWall concludes? I don't know. Neither does DeWall or his computer.

Common sense dictates that using song lyrics to prove almost anything -- stripped of the irony, humor and ambiguity that so often inform those lyrics -- is inherently bogus. To compare the words used in certain '80s hits with those of contemporary charters to support yet another iteration of the "nothin's no good no more" trope is a stretch that would be laughable if it weren't taken so seriously.

Specifically, DeWall's article in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts points to Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory" and Diana Ross and Lionel Richie's "My Endless Love" ("two hearts that beat as one") as exemplars of the "happy togetherness" of the '80s.

They then compare these lame tunes favorably to such more recent tracks as Weezer's "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)" "Sexy Back" by Justin Timberlake and Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry", in which the line, "It's personal, myself and I" supposedly proves not only her massive self-involvement but also that of those who like the record.

Another '80s tune the researchers point to, John Lennon's "Starting Over," is a good, warm-hearted effort. But it hardly approaches -- in quality or cultural resonance -- Lennon's '60s masterpiece of self-reference, "Strawberry Fields" ("No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low"), written at the height of the supposed "peace and love" era, or " Imagine", that paean to togetherness that kicked off the '70s, widely regarded as the "Me Decade".

It's silly on its face to characterize the '80s -- a decade dominated by such ego-enthralled superstars as Madonna, Prince and Whitney Houston, whose 1986 anthem "The Greatest Love of All" celebrated, above all, learning to "love yourself" -- as a benchmark of musical or societal harmony.

The biggest '80s star, of course, was Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop" whose self-obsession would have made Narcissus himself blush. Even Jackson's "We Are The World", which raised a ton of money for a great cause, can be seen as something of an act of self-glorification. (Saturday Night Live's parody, with Billy Crystal as Prince singing "I am the world, I am the children..." brilliantly sent up the "we left our egos at the door" pretensions of that enterprise.

On the flip side, a far better, more communal and more meaningful song, Lady Gaga's 2010 anthem "Born This Way" has already become a cornerstone of self-acceptance to an entire generation of record listeners.

If young people were so darn communal in the '80s, how come punk rock was so easily co-opted as capitalism's way of bottling and selling revolution during those years? And why did so many young adults help elect Ronald Reagan twice by landslides and then cheer him on as he dismantled as much of the New Deal and the Great Society as he could get away with?

I yield to no man in my revulsion of narcissism. In fact, I can say without hesitation that some of my worst friends are narcissists. And no doubt there are plenty of budding narcissists out there. Most young people I know combine an understandable dose of self-absorption -- in the face of skyrocketing health care costs, record unemployment for workers ages 16 to 24 and student loan debt now exceeding total credit card debt -- with some kind of spiritual practice and/or commitment to making the world a better place.

Green Music Group is just one of many contemporary organizations promoting eco-friendly rock tours, which often include "green" accommodations. Maybe a computer comparison of this movement with the hotel room trashings of the halcyon days of happy togetherness will reveal that today's kids aren't as full of themselves as conventional wisdom, and DeWall's pseudoscience, suggest.

 

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