The argument is always the same. As time passes by we’re getting lazier, slower, fatter and more stupid. Our attention spans are shortening and our ability to retain information is dwindling. Everyone wants to point the finger at the media, smart devices and the internet. Are these the demons that are turning our brains to mush? Or could it be something we never saw coming? Turns out the extinction of human kind may not be from an asteroid, Cybernet becoming self aware or a zombie apocalypse. Our end may in fact come from terrible lyrics.
Are lyrics getting dumber or is it the audience? The devolution of lyrics may mean an 8 year old child with a texta can pen the next number 1 hit.
Dumb lyrics are nothing new in musical history. Give The Beatles credit where credit is due for their prolific song writing ability, but you can’t look a keen music fan in the eye and tell them that Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a hallmark of godly lyricism. Sorry Sir Paul, but even John Lennon called that song “Granny shit”. The point being is that there have always been cases of lyrics being plain silly, incomprehensible, rude and straight out moronic. One best not look at a band like Steel Panther too hard (lest your eyes melt from being overwhelmed by witnessing so much botox housed within a grown man, so don’t watch the video), but they released a song called Fat Girl a few years ago, and you guessed it, is about having sex with an overweight woman. I dare not repeat the lyrics here, but needless to say there are some poorly hidden innuendos involving melons and mayonnaise.
Steel Panther is an obvious target when discussing horrible lyrics, but the science has revealed that lyrics these days are genuinely getting dumber. US researcher Andrew Powell-Morse recently conducted a study to analyse the reading level of 225 songs that held a position in the US Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop/ Rap and Country charts for three or more weeks. What he found can be considered a little startling.
Currently the average reading level for a popular song is that of a kid in year two or three. That’s roughly the age of eight or nine. Whereas ten years ago the average level was children in years three and four. Yikes. That means one of two things; songs are getting dumber or your pre-teen could easily pen Beyonce‘s next world dominating hit. Or worse, the three other people who co-write her songs have the collective intelligence of a person who is yet to sprout pimples.
Powell-Morse’s research finds that country music can be considered the smartest genre. Why? You can chalk it up to the use of longer words, which scores higher when judging a reading level. Good old country songs were found to feature longer words like “Hallelujah” and “Hydrostatic Transmission“, so it pays to have a wider vocabulary when it comes down to the average intellect level of your music. Which means if you want your song to be considered clever you’d best steer clear of words like “Oh”, “Yeah” and “Baby“, not necessarily in that order.
That’s not to say that having longer sentences and words makes your song better, or by any means more worthy of artistic praise. Looking at Powell-Morse’s stats of the top rock songs ranked by school grade level Nickelback‘s Something In Your Mouth ranks in with a 4.2 average grade level. Considering the highest is Dani California at 5.5, it’s not that much of an achievement, yet still ranks higher above many other songs featured in the study. Again, we’re not going to repeat the lyrics here, but anyone who has a listen to that song knows it is absolute lazy garbage.
Sure, you can argue that because a song is popular it doesn’t need to have substance, but isn’t that low expectation we have only prove that we aren’t seeking more sophisticated tunes? We’re not here to hate on pop music. Pop music is a whole lot of fun. Throw on Run the World (Girls) and you can bet I’ll dance my ass off, complete with sassy wrist twisting and hip gyrating. But music is first and foremost a form of artistic expression, a way to expand the mind, to draw in conversation on what makes you passionate and seek out answers through intuition. A romanticised notion at best, yet that is the seed of all artistic expression.
The thing is, it’s hard to sell artistic expression to the masses and make a living from it. Trust someone who works in the business, not many people in the music industry are making much money. In a world where Married At First Sight actually exists as entertainment, the best way to make a sure profit is to paint your expression in as broad a stroke as possible. But who is truly to blame? The few select moguls who hold all the dollars? Or is it the audience themselves, the masses who unquestioningly accept every bread and butter song that floats across the airwaves before being replaced but its doppelganger a month later?
So where do we draw the line between art and fun? Chances are the only person at a Kanye West gig who is judging the artistic quality of the show is king Yeezy himself. Getting down to some sweet jams is what being a fan is all about, but to truly engage with it requires more. Lyrics to popular songs are getting dumber. The proof that was in the pudding was served and eaten up a long time ago. Yet does that mean we can only sit idly by and bemoan the the deteriorating nature of music and quite possibly our society? Of course not.
The research for Powell-Morse’s study focused on 225 songs in recent US chart history. His data was just for fun, and while it does paint a very true picture, it neglects the millions of other songs that have been written over time. From our own Aussie classics to the bloke on a shabby stage with a dingy PA system, there are plenty of intelligent songs out there. Ones that maintain a sense of artistic pride and vision whilst remaining fun and accessible. The artistic apocalypse is always looming, what maters is the audience. We all have our embarrassing music crushes from back in the day, but as people we evolve and our tastes diversify. There is more out there than what is on the top of the charts, and as any fan of Happy knows, a lot of it is both intelligent and amazing!