Science, the branch of knowledge that concerns being the dad from Footloose, has previously used systematic studies to tell you that all popular songs sound the same, that they’re all about the same stuff, that they’re too loud, and that listening to them will turn you into a deaf, fornicating heathen and the crops will sour. Now science has an addendum to its data-grousing: Pop songs are dumb and only getting dumber, to the point where most hits today barely require a second-grade reading level to understand them.
According to SeatSmart analyst Andrew Powell-Morse, that actually represents a downward trend over the past 10 years, when the audiences of 2005 needed at least a third-grade education to suss out the lyrical complexity of songs like, for example, 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” Of course, Powell-Morse doesn’t expect those third graders to understand 50’s intricate use of a lollipop as metaphor for his dick. His analysis relies solely on a song’s Readability Score, which allows you to plug in a piece of text and have it spit back an average grade level, based solely on the relative difficulty of its individual words. And by that metric, the study opines, 50 Cent may as well be Thomas Pynchon compared to the lyricists of today. (Sidebar: Is 50 Cent actually Thomas Pynchon?)
Of course, this is an analysis that, by Powell-Morse’s own admission, doesn’t allow for nuance or deeper meaning, instead prizing such factors as word length and syllable count. And this is why country and Nickelback are, at least in this study’s findings, some of the smartest music around.
“These numbers are fun and interesting, so just enjoy them,” Powell-Morse says, similarly urging everyone to not go looking for deeper meaning and embrace the dumb.
In looking at 225 songs that have spent more than three weeks on the Billboard charts, Powell-Morse found that country music lyrics had the highest degree of difficulty, thanks to their general exclusion of filler words like “Oh” or “Yeah” or “Oh Yeah” (to name just three Black Eyed Peas hits). And the words they did use were often lengthy ones, with Powell-Morse citing examples such as “cigarettes,” “tacklebox,” and “hillbilly”—country music artists being too hifalutin to use regular words like “smokin’ stick,” “fishin’ shit,” and “Mom.”
Country songs are also riddled with callouts to cities and states with multisyllabic names like Mississippi and Louisiana, while other genres remain squarely focused on towns like New York and L.A. that are basically just baby noises. In the rare exception that proves the rule, the highest-scoring rock song—at a reading level of 5.5—was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California,” a tune that is simply the word “California” repeated until Flea gets tired.
All told, country has an average reading level of 3.3, followed by pop and rock (tied at 2.9), and R&B and hip-hop coming in last (2.6). But this data becomes even more personally insulting when it’s broken down by artist, which Powell-Morse does with a chart arguing that Foo Fighters is, lyrically speaking, a far dumber band than Nickelback.
According to this methodology, Eminem is also the most intelligent hip-hop artist to make it to the Billboard charts in the past decade, while Kanye West sure talks a lot but says basically nothing. (Also bringing him down: “Haangh?” is probably considered a lyric.)
And finally, Kesha makes music for barely literate first-graders. This is perhaps not so surprising.
Putting it all together, Powell-Morse offers his list of the 10 “dumbest” hit songs of the past decade, topped by Three Days Grace’s “The Good Life,” in which the singer sings of the good life and how it is good. It also features incessant radio babble such as “Moves Like Jagger,” a song that any first grader could understand after being told who “Jagger” is, then realizing it’s not relevant to the song anyway.
But again, that’s ignoring the deeper symbolism of “Moves Like Jagger,” which uses simile to suggest a poetic relation between the narrator’s tongue and that of singer Mick Jagger. And again, this is all drawn from a limited pool of data, and analyzed using incredibly simple metrics for reading complexity. As such, Powell-Morse stresses that his study saying pop music is dumb and is only getting dumber isn’t meant to be some sort of condemnation. In fact, it’s hardly even just a 10-year trend: Playing around with the Readability Score, the average Beatles song ranks around a second-grade level, while Ohio Express’ “Yummy Yummy Yummy” was so numbing, it was singlehandedly responsible for the election of Richard Nixon.
However, for all the study’s flaws, it does confirm suspicions that the most popular music sticks to a comprehension level that would appeal to the average 8-year-old. At least, until Taylor Swift finally releases her H.P. Lovecraft concept album.
[via The Guardian]