Study: A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics

A couple of years ago, as his fellow psychologists debated whether narcissism was increasing, Nathan DeWall heard Rivers Cuomo singing to a familiar 19th-century melody. Mr. Cuomo, the lead singer and guitarist for the rock band Weezer, billed the song as “Variations on a Shaker Hymn.”

Where 19th-century Shakers had sung ” ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,” Mr. Cuomo offered his own lyrics: “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.”

The refrain got Dr. DeWall wondering: “Who would actually sing that aloud?” Mr. Cuomo may have been parodying the grandiosity of other singers — but then, why was there so much grandiosity to parody? Did the change from “Simple Gifts” to “Greatest Man That Ever Lived” exemplify a broader trend?

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.

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