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New Study Says Popular Music Lyrics are Dumber Than Ever


We are all getting dumber.

Okay, so that's a huge over-simplification, but if popular music lyrics are any indication of the public's intelligence as a whole, we're trending much more towards Soulja Boy than Jay Electronica.  

Andrew Powell-Morse, a data analysis and visualization expert who is, by all assumptions, a very intelligent human being, recently put together some very compelling research (that I urge you to read in full) on the reading level required to understand music lyrics. To summarize, he used a metric called "Readability Score," to compare the reading levels of hit songs from various genres. Using pop, country, rock and (of course) hip-hop as his datasets, he looked at 225 songs in total, selecting any record that spent at least three weeks at #1 on the Billboard chart in a given year. Still with me? Good.

By plugging in lyrics for every song, Powell-Morse ended up with a grade level average and word count for each record, revealing that with rare exception popular music averaged at a third grade reading level, and has been in consistent decline since 2006. Yes, third grade, where most are age 8 or 9-years-old. Much like having McDonald's for dinner, this is great news for third graders and less promising for the rest of us.

The comparisons are broken down in several ways, such as male vs. female perfomers (sorry fellas, women narrowly take the cake), artists by genre (Eminem tops R&B/hip-hop), and individual songs (more on that later). How do the genres stack up as a whole? You're not going to like that answer. Country has the "smartest" lyrics, followed by a tie between rock and pop, and R&B/hip-hop acting as the '14-'15 Minnesota Timberwolves. 

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Now, there is a lot of information to be read in the article, which I would strongly encourage you to do. In fact, there's way too much info for this article, so I went ahead and pulled out a few interesting facts:

  • Taking the seven top artists from each genre and looking at them individually in terms of average word count and lyrical sophistication, Mariah Carey was the highest scoring artist in any genre. I'll go ahead and bring this song back in celebration.
  • Five of the ten "smartest" songs of the last decade belong to country, with Blake Shelton's "All About Tonight" taking the top spot. For a song I've only heard maybe once while slightly very intoxicated, I cannot comment on the apparently extensive philosophical profoundness contained within. Only one R&B/hip-hop song cracks the top ten, Rihanna's "Diamonds." Bitch betta have my money.
  • The ten "dumbest" songs? You'll find no country here (for old men or otherwise), and an even mix of the other three with Canadian rock band Three Days Grace's "The Good Life" taking top/lowhonors. Dammit, Canada! One notable selection is T-Pain's "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')," though with a name like "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')" it's hard to argue against the distinction.
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What does it all really mean, exactly? Honestly, not much. While it's definitely an interesting intellectual exercise that fans of all genres can look at and debate, the actual bearing that it has on the public's average intelligence, and what it says about hip-hop and music, is shaky at best. Right off the bat we're only talking about the most popular artists and songs, which is a small sliver of a genre's overall output and tends to be simpler by nature. Second, the study doesn't take into account the deeper meaning of lyrics: metaphors, wordplay, personal connections, etc. Completely divorced from meaning yes, even a third grader could read a line like, "All I need is one mic," but it takes a highly intelligent adult to understand the meaning of that line.  

Smart people listen to dumb music, dumb people (might) listen to smart music, this is music not a SAT test, and just because something is popular doesn't mean it reflects the tastes of the population as a whole. So lighten up, it's all in the name of fun. Besides, 10 years from now we'll probably be too dumb to care.

[By Brendan Varan. He wonders what the Readability Score of this piece is. Follow him on Twitter.]



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