Yesterday’s New York Times reported on a fascinating study of song lyrics by University of Kentucky psychologist Nathan DeWall. DeWall’s paper on the study, which appeared in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, found that over the past 30 years, the lyrics of popular songs have shown a trend away from a vision of shared love and happiness and toward, well, I want what I want and I want it now or I’ll rip your throat.
Two of the co-authors of the study wrote a book a few years back called The Narcissism Epidemic, and nothing they saw—or heard, rather—in their linguistic analysis of lyrics caused them to question their position that young people today are more self-centered than ever before. College students’ eagerness to agree with such statements as “I am going to be a great person” and “I like to look at myself in the mirror” is right in line with the music topping the Billboard charts, from Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” to Ce-Lo’s “Fuck You” to Jeremih’s “Down on Me” (which is about dirty dancing, not low spirits). Nicki Minaj sings “I wish that I could have this moment for life” while Bruno Mars croons about staying in bed all day long with his hand down his pants just because he can. And let’s not forget Keri Hilson’s “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful” refrain in “Pretty Girl Rock.” I, I, I, me me! How does an entire generation become so full of itself?
It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing: Young people listen to these songs, which the study shows are less and less about love and hope and more and more about anger and hatred, and their levels of loneliness and depression go up. When you’re depressed and lonely, you think about your own misery, not the troubles of others. Narcissists, researchers say, have trouble keeping their relationships going. For all its talk of “social connectedness,” the next generation is busy writing and singing about anomie and bad behavior. How naive does the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” sound these days?
Feeding this narcissistic zeal is the steady diet of me-ness in our overall culture. Twitter insists: I’m coming at you! And I matter! Facebook tells you how very, very many friends you have, and pretends that they care what you do. Reality TV shows prove that anybody up to and including a really bad teen mom can be a star, complete with cover stories in People, book deals, and paparazzi following you everywhere.
Is there any hope for society amidst this onslaught of egotism? Jean M. Twenge, a co-author of DeWall’s study, has one suggestion for young people: “Ask yourself, ‘How would I look at this situation if it wasn’t about me?’” Unfortunately, that’s exactly the ability their overabundance of narcissism is unlikely to promote.