How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy


By Claire Bernish at


A recent study served to confirm the patently obvious: song lyrics for the most popular genres of music are ridiculously obtuse — and getting worse over time. Though this might not be a revelation, the figures are distressing indicators of both an intellectually vapid societal and cultural future as well as its apparent inevitability.

If you’ve already moved away from Billboard music, congratulations, you refuse to be insulted. But if you haven’t, or if you’re concerned about pop culture trends acting as portents of systemic dysfunction, you should probably pay attention. Andrew Powell-Morse of SeatSmart studied the “Lyric Intelligence” of 225 Billboard songs in the Pop, Country, Hip-hop, and Rock genres that spent three or more weeks parked at the top of the charts to analyze any changes over the course of ten years. And change there was.

Ten years ago, the most popular songs read between a third and fourth grade level, but the inanity only increased with time, and after a five-year downward tumble ending in 2014 (the last year of the study), chart-topping hits had a reading level equivalent to second or third grade. Broken into genres, the levels measured just 2.6 for Hip-hop/R&B, a tie of 2.9 for Rock and Pop, and faring best was Country at 3.3 — though declaring a winner in this insipid race to the bottom seems somewhat defeatist. Even further to that point, the most intellectually stimulating song, Blake Shelton’s Country hit “All About Tonight”, measured just 5.8, while wading deeply into the ludicrous was Three Days Grace’s “The Good Life”, at a level equivalent to 0.8 — begging the question, did they have to try to craft lyrics a kindergartner could easily read?

So how did this happen and why is it getting even worse? For the sake of brevity, this is a systemic issue being reinforced across the board by pandemic anti-intellectualism. Some have argued there is no harm in a bit of mindless distraction, but 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.

There is a dearth in music options over the airwaves, so when vacuous lyrics are foisted on listeners, they become captives under duress. It is scientifically proven that flexing the intellect can slow cognitive decline, but there has been a cultural shift away from stimulating thought in favor of homogenization and living for the moment, and empty radio content is both symptom and reinforcement of that trend. 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. Occasional forays into mindless distraction would be understandable and harmless if they were just forays, but the foundation is faulty due to a sharp decline in quality education at every level.

Education has become the highest form of indoctrination with teachers forced into regurgitating information so their students can pass tests rather than become innovators and original thinkers. And who could blame them? Currently, they’re held to the ridiculous system where their performance is ranked, and salary determined by how those students perform on standardized tests that are, themselves, flawed. As Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, put it, “This country has spent billions on accountability, not on the improvement of teaching and learning at the classroom level.”

An education system based almost solely on taking tests is not only intellectually dimming, it’s stressful — instructors doling out the tests are given a set of instructions for what to do when students vomit on their test booklets. All of this is designed to send students to college where the situation is perpetuated. According toCatherine Liu, a film and media studies professor at the University of California, “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”

Listen: ‘Reagan’ by Killer Mike on Anti-Media

From a political standpoint, all this ‘dumbing down’ makes sense: indoctrination creates obedience. If music and culture focus on mindless diversion, and education lacks, well, education, then people lack the acuity necessary to question the absurdity of the system. Those who manage to liberate themselves from this mold and have the gumption to question official authority will find a cozy spot on the government’s watch list. So while we bemoan our country’s lack of intellectual prowess, it isn’t by a failure of design.

The author of aptly titled Idiot America, journalist Charles Pierce, thoroughly summed up the issue this way:“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.”

Unfortunately, if the lyrics study is a prognostic omen, the epidemic of idiocy will only get worse.

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  1. Finally an article worth reading and paying attention to. I felt like I was all alone to some degree. Even though I like “hook” sounds and trends I also cant stand idiotic lyrical content dumbing us down either. Case in point? A-Ha’s “Take On Me” from the 80s was a lyrical nightmare, have you read those lyrics? What about that other old song known by Iron Butterfly “Inagodadavida” in which the lead singer could not say or possible pronounce what was suppose to be “In The Garden Of Eden”. Stupid idiocies? or just self absorbed drug abuse at its finest or just plain stupid. Im going with “stupid”! Because at some point somewhere down the line someone should have spoken up and not marketed songs in those fashions as they are now known as failure to the vast majority to those paying attention like myself. Anyway, my opinion? we just need real songwriters writing their own music creating thought-provoking music like what Marilyn Manson was doing when he tapped into what was missing in musical society. You may hate that guy but he was a lyrical genius for his time with regards to what he was trying to convey. You notice Aaron Carter didnt last very long and neither will all these others once their pretty faces get older 😉 My comment isnt a rant but merely a wake up call to musicians to get creative and write with intent to educate through thought-provoking material that stimulates the minds who listen. Let this merely be a call to arms. Sorry to sound like a fifth grader but I dumbed it down to fit in so others will understand my lyrical commentary =P Have a great day and go listen to something enlightening and mind blowing!

    • mike you went to far in the past but still there were songs with stupid lyrics, but not as many as today. Not even close. how about umbrella ella ella e e e or i’ll catch a granede for you..bohemian and run this world..

    • Agreed. But, as a locally successful musician who has performed internationally here and there, I must say that your “call to arms” for musicians to get creative with their writing has already been met. There are tens of thousands – maybe more – incredible musicians, composers and lyricists in the US alone, and of course tons more elsewhere.The problem is (in my opinion) that the music industry thrives on simplicity. As the attention span of our culture gets lower and we become more and more accustomed to instant gratification for everything, songs that take a few listens to fully appreciate or that have enough lyrics to actually tell a meaningful story or convey a deeper message are lost in the mix. Songs on the charts these days are herded through like cattle, and an “old” song nowadays could mean a song from a month ago, whereas an old song used to mean a song from the 70’s or 80’s.

      My theory is that the music industry is beginning to implode, because outside of the mainstream listeners who still tune in to pop stations, there is an apparent growing audience of listeners of independent artists, nobody bands, obscure heavy metal acts, etc. The music industry isn’ going to change as long as they make money, but when people finally have had enough of the idiocy in the lyrics (and in the composition for that matter – listen to “Four Chord Song” by Axis of Awesome), I think the industry could end up changing from the bottom up. That’s my hope, at least.

  2. singing Michael Jackson ‘you are not alone.. I am here with you.. Pop music is bullshit.. What the fun huq can we doooo..’

  3. I don’t dispute the idiocy of current pop music. To do so would, itself, be idiocy. However, hit songs are meant to be catchy and memorable. Even traditional pop standards like “Night & Day” or “Blue Moon” are probably within a grade-school vocabulary level.

    It’s probably better to focus on the simplicity or sophistication of the melody & arrangement, frequency of repetition, and message. Today’s hits will still come out stupid, but it’d give us more to analyse, more with which to form judgment.

  4. I agree with the overall assertion of this article, but I take issue with some of the data used to support it. That first study, the SeatSmart one, ranks song based on tests used for written English. Nobody speaks or sings with perfect grammar because the same rules don’t apply. Comprehension works differently when we hear words as opposed to when we read them. This also ignores the emotional impact of music and poetry. You can’t calculate the emotional intelligence of an artist based on how many words they use, you judge by what words they combine to convey their feelings.

    To me this study is no better than ranking a city’s wealth based on the number of buildings it contains — it almost works, but it ignores everything that’s actually important.

    That all being said, I truly do wish the media monopolies would topple so I could hear more than “Watch me whip” on the radio.

  5. That kindergarten simple stuff has its place, many artist still write complex lyrics. It’s the porn aspect that makes me nae nae.

  6. It’s very hard to believe that the current pop music are so f*cking stupid and retarded, with references of money, reproduction and drugs everywhere. It is obvious that people who grew up listening to this crap will become nothing more than just crap (and they think they are cool LOL). That’s why I started to listening to anime music (and Japanese music overall). They have the power to purify your soul

  7. Hip hop was ‘underground’ when it came around, all those artists talked about how society treated them harshly, how they had to sell dope to make cash, how they’re constantly fucked by the cops and the government – until evetually they got rich and started talking about money.

    Now that hop hop is trendy, and everyones in on it – they’re smoking weed, driving cars, wearing gold chains. If they talked about harsh conditions and ‘gangsta shit’ they would be hypocrites as hip hop lyrics are based around self-expression, dealing with problems that these individuals face, commenting on their surrounding.

    There’s no more problems but they’re still just talking about their life – if they werent, their lyrics would simply not be authentic to hip hop. Since their life is boring – and like ours – is based around social media – the lyrics end up being either about girlsmoneycars, or trying to comment on social/political issues like anyone on Facebook today just through music.

    They’re not idiots. They just don’t have much to say.

    • Hip hop originally was also filthy. Children jumping rope would chant awful rhymes about people’s parents, sex and all sorts of things.
      When I lived around the corner from the Southeast Boys’ Club in DC in 1975-76, I was shocked.
      The social issues you mentioned were there as well but it wasn’t always about the struggle.

  8. To give people an idea of how these figures compare to old music, I decided to run the same test as SeatSmart on some of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, some songs under the category “Published popular music” released in 1900 in this Wikipedia page and some number 1 singles released in 1950 according to this Wikipedia page

    I tested 3 of Shakespeare’s works: Sonnets 17, 18 and 116. This resulted in an average grade equivalent of 12.467, with Sonnet 18 scoring the highest in this selection with 19.3.
    I then tested 3 songs from the aforementioned list: ‘A Bird in a Gilded Cage’; ‘The Blue and the Gray’; and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’. This resulted in an average grade equivalent of 15.1, with ‘A Bird in a Gilded Cage’ scoring the highest of this selection with 17.7.
    I tested 3 number 1 singles from the year, all of which were number 1 for 9 or more weeks. These were: ‘The Third Man Theme’; ‘Goodnight, Irene’; and ‘The Tennessee Waltz’. They resulted in an average grade equivalent of 11.933 with ‘The Third Man Theme’ scoring the highest of this selection with 15.1.

    Provided that SeatSmart’s data is accurate, this means there is a 6.133 lower grade equivalent in the highest scoring song of the past decade to the average grade equivalent of the year 1950 and a 9.3 lower average grade equivalent to that of 1900.

    I hope this can help more people see how simplified modern music is. I also implore songwriters of all genres to take this data, both mine and SeatSmart’s, to heart and not continue the current trend.

  9. Another thing. Lyrics of these songs affect any English-speaking person who listens to these songs, not just Americans. For example, British, Canadian and Australian people are all just as susceptible to the effects these lyrics have on our intelligence as Americans are.

  10. The best teachers can break down a complicated concept or principle and teach it to little children. I don’t see what’s wrong with making music simple to understand.

  11. For those who don’t know, consider this: Since the 1920’s, MOST (not all)of the popular music was and still is, written by groups of people hired by the producers and bigwigs of record labels, and it’s even more of a “thing” today. The bulk of what is called Top40 music is written by 2 or more people on each team. They craft what the song needs to sound like, according to the of the most “famous” songwriting groups hails from Sweden.

    For a reference start, if you’re curious, research the Brill Building/House. You can also find a book that goes into detail about the above called “The Hit Factory”. It was an eye-opening read.

  12. So true! And don’t even get me started on the catastrophic illiteracy of the poetry of “e.e. cummings”.

  13. These days the lyrics mean shit anymore. Take Rihanna’s single “Work”. She sounds like she’s not really meaning any word of it.. ..”..wha wha wha wha wha wha..!”
    You can replace it with “blah blah blah blah..” And the music would sound just as good. I think Rihanna knows that.. And she knows we don’t give a shit about the lyrics. We just love her voice and the melody. So wha wha wha what what what..? I don’t give a fer fer fer fer fer fek”

  14. Think the article hit the nail on the head talking about the major media corporations . and radio stations playing the same shit on every station. It does seem to be a systematic dumbing down of society. There are musician/ artists who do come up with thought provoking songs but they are not brought into the mainstream you have to stumble on them or be personally introduced to it. If you erode the ability to think a little on many sides you have in effect a very effective mechanism to dumb down and mute society from all the atrocities that are so blatantly going on around us. USA is the worst of them all and what you got going on there defies all understanding , You have a country that the politics are so currupt yet you preach to the world about democracy , you don’t have any real freedom to vote as 90 % of all the info you are given to base your decisions on are manipulated. You live in a police state where you say one wrong word to a guy in uniform you get the crap beaten out of you , tazered, pepper sprayed, arms cuffed behind your back, if you lucky enough not to be shot or head smashed into the ground, but you call yourselves free. Most Europeans would have torn down the cities in riot if they experienced any of that . Watch a fly on the wall cop show in Uk, then watch the same kind of show in USA such a big difference. I watch all the shit going on there because I am preying you stand up and do something about it because you are a big powerful nation that like cancer will slowly influence every other country in the world if you don’t..

  15. Day time shows and “comercials” seem to be getting dumber, and dumber as well…..Its mind blowing (or, a, mind shrinking)


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