Popular music has become more narcissistic in recent decades

Several psychologists argue that pop music has become increasingly narcissistic over recent decades:

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…

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…

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, Beyoncé exulted in how hot she looked while dancing — “It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement.” And Fergie, who boasted about her “humps” while singing with the Black Eyed Peas, subsequently released a solo album in which she told her lover that she needed quality time alone: “It’s personal, myself and I.”

The majority of this article is about how narcissism is measured and how it shows up in younger generations.

But I would prefer to see more thinking about why music has changed in this way. A broad question could be asked: does or should pop music reflect culture or change culture? I would suggest that it does both but it would be interesting to see data on this: is music more narcissistic because people are more narcissistic or are people more narcissistic because music is more narcissistic? Answering this broad question also requires figuring out what music really means to people. For younger people, listening to music is an important activity and is an integral part of adolescence and emerging adulthood.

This recent study also tries to get at this question and can’t say much about the direction of causality:

With each level increase in music use, teens had an 80% higher risk of depression, the study found.

The study didn’t measure total listening times, but based on previous data, the study authors estimated that teens in the highest-use group were likely listening to music for at least four or five hours a day…

“At this point, it is not clear whether depressed people begin to listen to more music to escape, or whether listening to large amounts of music can lead to depression, or both,” said Primack in a statement.

By contrast, researchers found that reading books had the opposite association: with each level increase in time spent reading, teens’ risk of depression dropped 50%. “This is worth emphasizing because overall in the U.S., reading books is decreasing, while nearly all other forms of media use are increasing,” Primack said.

This contrast to reading is interesting. Does this suggest that listening to music is more self-indulgent while reading is not?

Overall, it sounds like we need more research to sort out this issue. Music is more narcissistic, the culture may be more narcissistic, this has an effect on people, but it is a bit unclear which direction the causal arrows go. If only we could design some sort of controlled experiment that could isolate the effect of more narcissistic music…

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