Andrew Powell-Morse of SeatSmart conducted a study into the intelligence levels of popular music, covering the main genres. The study has served to confirm the obvious: Popular music lyrics are dumb, and they’re only getting worse.
The study looks at the most popular songs, artists, and genres of the last 10 years, ending in 2014. It shows that 10 years ago, songs read between a third and fourth grade level, but the levels have continued to drop with an additional downward tumble that began about 5 years ago.
Is we really getting more stupider?
Provided below are a series of graphs (for those of us who need pictures) that show the results of the study.
While the results are certainly enlightening, it’s important to note that this data doesn’t touch on the meaning of a song, the metaphors, how the words connect with the artist’s personal story, etc. to create deeper meaning. These numbers are fun and interesting, so just enjoy them.
As shown above, the average reading level of popular songs has teetered somewhere between grades 2.5 and 3 since 2007, and they’re only getting lower. So how do men and women fair against one another?
Apparently 2009 wasn’t a very smart year for female lyrics, however by 2014 they evened out with their male counterparts at a little over a 2.5 grade level. In general though:
… Women seem to be a bit smarter than men, except for when they’re not (i.e., 2008-2009). Ultimately, the genre and the artist matter much more than the gender.
On to genres:
There are many who may not be pleased with the outcomes, but it would seem Country has the smartest lyrics. Looking over the average U.S. reading level by grade and genre:
Pop: 2.9 (tie)
Rock: 2.9 (tie)
It seems there’s a reason Country has made the top of the list in this section. Word length plays a large part, and Country doesn’t often repeat words like “oh” and “yeah” 20 times in a row. Syllables play their part as well with many Country songs using words such as “Hallelujah, cigarettes, hillbilly, and tackle-box.”
The scores of other genres, such as Pop and R&B/Hip-Hop, are effected by songs like “Buy U a Drank” by T-Pain, which scored slightly above a 1st grade reading level. Rock has plummeted as well, with songs like Ozzy Osbourne’s “I Don’t Wanna Stop” which scored a 1.6 grade reading level. In 2009, however, Country reached its low point with songs like “Then” by Brad Paisley, which scored a 2.2 grade level.
Let’s take a closer look at how word count plays into the picture:
There’s a definite correlation between the average length of a song and the average grade level, however it’s an inverse relationship, meaning that shorter songs actually have a higher grade level. The graph above shows that R&B/Hip-Hop and Pop seem to be “talking a lot and not saying much.” Country and Rock fared much better.
Moving on to “artist vs. artist,” Powell-Morse went through each category, picking 7 of the top artists “based on their number of hit songs and how long those songs stayed at #1.”
Who scored the highest? Would the real Slim Shady please stand up… That’s right, Marshall Bruce Mathers the III, better known by his stage name, Eminem, scored the highest grade level with a word count averaging at about 700. Beyonce scored the lowest grade level, however Kanye West takes the prize as the artist who talks the most while saying the least.
Carrie Underwood scored highest in the Country genre, with an average grade level of 3.72, while Florida Georgia Line scored at the bottom with 2.93. One thing is definitely apparent though, Country stars actually “say” more than those in the Hip-Hop genre, rather than filling their lyrics with repetitive words or phrases.
Rock also seems to fall in the “shortest lyrics, most sophisticated” category, however the genre also tends to stand firmly in the 2nd to 3rd grade region.
If there’s a single stunning fact about this genre, it still has to be that not a single female singer made it onto the Rock list. That means not a single lady stayed at the top of the charts for four or more weeks during the entire last 10 years. Why that might be frankly deserves its own post.
How does all of this compare to Pop artists?
Mariah Carey scores higher than any other artist with almost a 4th grade level while Ke$ha, on the other hand, scored the lowest along with Lady Gaga. While Justin Timberlake scored a 3rd grade reading level, his lyrics don’t seem to “say” much. So how do artists and their songs compare when all genres are put together?
And of course, here is the inevitable “list of shame,” or the dumbest 10 songs of the last 10 years:
For additional listings, see SeatSmart’s full article.
After reviewing Andrew Powell-Morse’s study, those at the AntiMedia have questioned how this has happened, and why it’s getting even worse. The first point they bring to attention is that while some may argue there is nothing wrong with a little mindless distraction, this is “incontrovertibly false.”
When just six corporations control 90% of the media, and 80% of radio stations have identical playlists, mindless content isn’t a choice—it’s a virtual mandate. In this self-propelled cycle of banality, the conglomerates dictate content to be promoted by radio, which in turn pushes it endlessly, creating a false perception that what is being played is due to listener demand. But this insidious marketing ploy is more akin to kidnapping and is every bit as dangerous.
Brain exercises and flexing one’s intellect has been shown to prevent cognitive decline, however our airwaves perpetuate and support a cultural shift away from stimulating thought in favor of “homogenization and living for the moment.”
Society is focused on entertainment, materialism, and self-promotion, and when coupled with a need for instant gratification, it’s really no wonder we’re in such a sorry state.
The second point those at the AntiMedia bring up is our educational system, and how the same, dulling methods are regurgitated onto our children in the classroom. Teachers are forced to repeat generalized information so that their students can pass tests rather than becoming innovators and original thinkers. Their performance and salaries are ranked by how well their students perform on tests that are, themselves, flawed.
“This country has spent billions on accountability, not on the improvement of teaching and learning at the classroom level,” stated Rani Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
There are those who believe our current system was carefully orchestrated to keep the average citizen as stupid as possible, and even if it wasn’t, it still works rather favorably for the government—between music, the cultural focus on mindless diversion, and a lacking educational system, people are unable to recognize the absurdity of the system.
“We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.” – Catherine Liu, film and media studies professor at the University of California.
Journalist, Charles Pierce:
“The rise of idiot America today represents—for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.”
Bernish, Claire. AntiMedia. May 20, 2015. (http://theantimedia.org/how-popular-musics-lyrics-perpetuate-american-idiocy/)
Powell-Morse, Andrew. SeatSmart. May 18, 2015. (http://www.seatsmart.com/blog/lyric-intelligence/)