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July 16, 2012

First Person, Singular

A while back the Editorial Staff saw this study, but didn't quite know what to make of it:

Between 1965 and 1969, 85 percent of the top 40 Billboard hits were written in a major key. But as the decades have passed that number has fallen dramatically: Between 2005 and 2009, only 42.5% of hits were in a major key. For the same time period, the tempo of hit songs dropped, from slightly more than 116 beats per minute to about 100.

The headline-grabbing implication of the finding is that pop music is getting sadder. Sad-sounding music tends to be in a minor key and have a slow tempo; happy-sounding music, more often than not, has the opposite characteristics.

It seems odd that popular music would be sadder than it used to be. Our generation had so much more than our parents did: more (and nicer) clothes, money, opportunities (college, career), choices. We live in a more tolerant, diverse world with less restrictive gender roles and fewer rigid, judgmental standards. We've cast off the outdated sexual mores that supposedly (or so we were told) filled our parents and grandparents with shame and self loathing [sob!]. Ours was a kindler, gentler upbringing: where previous generations of Americans were spanked or even beaten with switches when they misbehaved, our parents were told that spanking would crush our little souls and turn us into violent sociopaths... just like them.

So what did all these enlightened advances get us? Today's children have more than we ever did... and yet their music is more downbeat, pessimistic, unhappy. Considering all the wonderful things we enjoy, shouldn't our music and culture be happier than it used to? In the midst of all these cultural and economic riches, what could possibly account for the growing deficit in our Gross National Happiness?

As tempted as we were to blame the usual suspects (feminism and Democrats), last week a possible explanation surfaced: maybe we're just thinking too much... about ourselves:

Vocalists often warm up by singing “Mi, mi, mi, mi, mi.” But increasingly, the songs they perform — or at least those that make the top 10 lists – are odes to “Me, me, me, me, me.”

Clear evidence of American society’s increasing narcissism can be found in our best-selling popular songs. That’s the conclusion of a study just published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Compared to a quarter-century ago, “Popular music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self,” reports a team of researchers led by University of Kentucky psychologist C. Nathan DeWall.

Curious to find whether the increasing levels of narcissism documented in previous studies would be reflected in the music young people listen to, DeWall and his colleagues analyzed the top 10 songs in the U.S. for each year between 1980 and 2007 (as measured by Billboard magazine).

Using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, which “counts the percentage of words in a body of text that correspond to various categories,” they analyzed the content of the lyrics in several related ways.

The researchers found the use of first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) declined over the years, while the use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, mine) increased. Words reflecting anger or antisocial behavior (hate, kill, damn) became more prevalent over the 28-year period.

Conversely, terms depicting social interactions (talking, sharing) became less common, as did the use of words conveying positive emotions (love, nice, sweet). These findings mirror “recent evidence showing increases in U.S. loneliness and psychopathology over time,” the researchers write.

This is troubling in the light of other recent research that found songs conveying antisocial messages tend to promote aggressive thoughts and hostile feelings, while those with lyrics promoting peace and love can increase empathy and encourage selflessness.

And it's not just pop music - a review of literature published over the last 50 years shows the same trend:

Researchers who have scanned books published over the past 50 years report an increasing use of words and phrases that reflect an ethos of self-absorption and self-satisfaction.

“Language in American books has become increasingly focused on the self and uniqueness in the decades since 1960,” a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge writes in the online journal PLoS One. “We believe these data provide further evidence that American culture has become increasingly focused on individualistic concerns.”

Their results are consistent with those of a 2011 study which found that lyrics of best-selling pop songs have grown increasingly narcissistic since 1980. Twenge’s study encompasses a longer period of time—1960 through 2008—and a much larger set of data.

These articles had me thinking about being a brand new Marine wife back in the early 80s. One of the big challenges was mentoring younger wives (or just wives who were new to the military and the challenges that come along with frequent deployments). At every duty station, there was always a group of women who bloomed where they were planted. As far as I could tell, their lives weren't any smoother than anyone else's, but when they felt discouraged or lonely, they turned outwards: they volunteered, threw a party, found a job, took up a hobby.

And there was always a group of women who were miserable: every minor speedbump turned into a mountain of despair. They spent deployments - even short ones lasting only a few weeks - obsessing over how lonely they were without their husbands. They focused on everything they didn't have. I often found myself wondering what they did before they were married.

Though I sympathized, it was often hard for me to relate to the second group. I had two small children and rarely had the opportunity to attend fun events sponspored by the base or the command. Relatively speaking, they had plenty of money and time. The one thing I took away from those years was that focusing on how you feel or the perceived deficiences in your life rarely leads to happiness.

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the advice we were given as children: "It's not all about you. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Go out and do something for someone else - you'll feel better and so will they". A world that revolves around the individual is an impoverished, shrunken version of the real world, in which any one of us plays only a tiny part.

It's an oddly comforting thought.

Update: speaking of self absorption... Good Lord:

How To Be a Woman follows its anti-heroine from her 13th birthday (182 pounds, friendless, fleeing from gravel-flinging yobs) onward, with stops along the way to praise masturbation, argue both for and against motherhood, celebrate her abortion, and more. Each self-deprecating chapter (“I Start Bleeding!” “I Become Furry!” “I Don’t Know What To Call My Breasts!”) is an occasion to explore how, from puberty through senescence, the modern female body has become a series of problems to be solved— usually at great expense to its inhabitant. There is, for instance, the upkeep of that new presumed depilation (“I can’t believe we’ve got to a point where it’s basically costing us money to have a vagina”); the tyranny of stratospheric heels (“The minimum I ask for my footwear: to be able to dance in it and that it not get me murdered”); ever-teenier underpants (“How can 52 percent of the population expect to win the war on terror if they can't even sit down without wincing?”).

Here's another gem passed down from adults during my childhood: quit worrying so much about what other people think.

Posted by Cassandra at July 16, 2012 07:30 AM

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Comments

Well, there was all that teenage angst in my beloved rock 'n' roll....

I saw a piece a while ago (naturally, I can't find the link anymore) that suggested that part of the...malaise...of today's boomer generation is that they--we--subliminally fear that they can't measure up to their fathers and mothers of the Greatest Generation. After all what have we boomers done that can compare with those parents, who quite literally beat back the forces of monstrous evil in WWII, both on the battle lines and in the homefront factories?

And there's my own gut feel that as the world's richest generation, and the first generation to achieve anything at all even remotely approaching our collective wealth, we baby boomers didn't know how to handle that wealth in the very real sense that we were unable to teach our own children how to handle it--both fiscally and morally.

With the outcome of this: our children, the generation currently picking up the reins of national power--politically, economically, and so on--are wholly lacking in self confidence. They've never done anything on their own; it's all been handed to them.

So they're afraid. They worry about "what will happen to me?" They look for momma and daddy--now government--to provide for them, or they act out their fears as bullies in politics, or....

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at July 16, 2012 11:29 AM

And there's my own gut feel that as the world's richest generation, and the first generation to achieve anything at all even remotely approaching our collective wealth, we baby boomers didn't know how to handle that wealth in the very real sense that we were unable to teach our own children how to handle it--both fiscally and morally. With the outcome of this: our children, the generation currently picking up the reins of national power--politically, economically, and so on--are wholly lacking in self confidence. They've never done anything on their own; it's all been handed to them.

That makes a lot of sense - somewhere along the line the idea that self esteem was something other people could give to (or withhold from)us, not something we earn for ourselves gained traction.

I also think, though, that a lot of it has to do with not being shaped by adversity (and consequently learning it can be overcome). I've been really shocked at how many parents seem to view any kind of hardship as something to be avoided.

When I was raising my kids, I read a lot and what I took away from my reading was the previous generations trained children that adversity was part of life - something they needed to harden themselves against and learn to overcome. Whereas these days we view even the most trivial of hardships as some kind of major tragedy that we're helpless against.

That can't be healthy.

Posted by: Cass at July 16, 2012 12:13 PM

Luckily I learned how to buy underwear that fit decades ago. I can only weep for a generation deprived of this knowledge, and hope Congressional reparations are underway.

When terrorism strikes, be assured I will be able to sit down with confidence.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 16, 2012 12:29 PM

"When I was raising my kids, I read a lot and what I took away from my reading was the previous generations trained children that adversity was part of life - something they needed to harden themselves against and learn to overcome. Whereas these days we view even the most trivial of hardships as some kind of major tragedy that we're helpless against.

That can't be healthy."

At my suggestion an Executive Order is being drafted to insure Grief Counselors will be dispatched immediately.

And Hanes Inspector #12...

Posted by: S.J.Lee at July 16, 2012 12:37 PM

quit worrying so much about what other people think.

The formulation of this that I like is: What other people think about me is none of my business.

I think a lot of unhappiness has to do with loss of structure. It turns out I am not actually a self-starting, self-actualizing creative genius who can fulfill her full potential only when totally freed from all societal constraints and from others expectations. Imagine my surprise.

I'm actually pretty much a regular old person who flourishes within a series of supportive, structured environments in which I, yes, give as well as take: family, job, solid friendships, community activities.

Perhaps this is the same as the idea that thinking of others is the key to happiness. It's easy for me to be very selfish when I'm free-floating. Being embedded within social structures makes it harder for everything to be about me, Me, ME.

Posted by: Elise at July 16, 2012 12:45 PM

I'm actually pretty much a regular old person who flourishes within a series of supportive, structured environments in which I, yes, give as well as take: family, job, solid friendships, community activities. Perhaps this is the same as the idea that thinking of others is the key to happiness. It's easy for me to be very selfish when I'm free-floating. Being embedded within social structures makes it harder for everything to be about me, Me, ME.

That's something that military life did for me quite effectively (what I'm really saying here is that I didn't have to try as hard!). There was a lot of structure that I sort of inherited, or chose to assume, because of my husband's job. When he got more senior and was assigned to the Pentagon, at first I really felt like a fish out of water b/c there was no role for me there.

So your formulation makes a lot of sense to me :)

...though I'm going to have to work on the whole U-trau thing!

Posted by: Cass at July 16, 2012 12:55 PM

Luckily I learned how to buy underwear that fit decades ago. I can only weep for a generation deprived of this knowledge, and hope Congressional reparations are underway.

Teh Patriarchy totally oweth us on thith one.

Posted by: The's Thinging My Thong.... at July 16, 2012 01:05 PM

At my suggestion an Executive Order is being drafted to insure Grief Counselors will be dispatched immediately.

Yanno, even I'm beginning to be creeped out by my own willingness to get in everyone's business....

Posted by: Obama Everywhere at July 16, 2012 01:07 PM

Maggie's Farm linked to a funny post the other day about "First World Problems." Domino's pizza-delivery GPS-tracking system is down, so I don't know when to put on my pants. I can't hear the TV over the noise of my crunchy snack.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 16, 2012 01:16 PM

...though I'm going to have to work on the whole U-trau thing!

Well, MRUN found one solution to that problem.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 16, 2012 03:39 PM

"Teh Patriarchy totally oweth us on thith one"
Uh-uh. That's all Milan and Paris and Cosmo. I'm with The Husband(and likely Herr Grim): mine wife can be covered in dirt head to toe and I'd still find her attractive, panty lines or no.

Posted by: ry at July 28, 2012 01:31 PM

Music. They've gone to the primal thing oft used by cheers. Toni Basil's 'Mickey' writ large. It's designed to be accessable. And, hey, after 30 years they found a set of chords and progressions that tend to be the MOST MOVING. Why screw with stuff you know DOESN'T WORK?

THere's lots of experimental work out there. It's just not geared for the tween female demographic that is the driver of today's pop.

There's something else that can be tossed into it. The cultural idea that the artist MUST be a TORTURED soul, and that ART is IRREVERENT. There's some art critic that said he and his generation owe us all a huge appology for giving us a generation that believes the ugly is beautiful. Think Korn with the a-tonal and unsynchronized sound, and Sonic Youth along with the whole No-Wave/No-Tech movement.

Another thing to remember is this: back then songs, particularly pop songs, were written by people whose job was to write songs and not perform them. Now it's the 'singer-songwriter' as norm. You're going to get something very different from someone who went to college to learn about music or spent 20 years learning a craft than you will from a 20year old with a gift for aliteration and a pocketful of angst.

Posted by: ry at July 28, 2012 01:44 PM

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