A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics

By John Tierney

A couple of years ago, as his fellow psychologists debated whether narcissism was increasing, Nathan DeWall heard Rivers Cuomo singing to a familiar 19th-century melody. Mr. Cuomo, the lead singer and guitarist for the rock band Weezer, billed the song as “Variations on a Shaker Hymn.”

Where 19th-century Shakers had sung “ ’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,” Mr. Cuomo offered his own lyrics: “I’m the meanest in the place, step up, I’ll mess with your face.” Instead of the Shaker message of love and humility, Mr. Cuomo sang over and over, “I’m the greatest man that ever lived.”

The refrain got Dr. DeWall wondering: “Who would actually sing that aloud?” Mr. Cuomo may have been parodying the grandiosity of other singers — but then, why was there so much grandiosity to parody? Did the change from “Simple Gifts” to “Greatest Man That Ever Lived” exemplify a broader trend?

Now, after a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.

“Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” Dr. DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, says. His study covered song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 and controlled for genre to prevent the results from being skewed by the growing popularity of, say, rap and hip-hop.

Defining the personality of a generation with song lyrics may seem a bit of a reach, but Dr. DeWall points to research done by his co-authors that showed people of the same age scoring higher in measures of narcissism on some personality tests. The extent and meaning of this trend have been hotly debated by psychologists, some of whom question the tests’ usefulness and say that young people today aren’t any more self-centered than those of earlier generations. The new study of song lyrics certainly won’t end the debate, but it does offer another way to gauge self-absorption: the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The researchers find that hit songs in the 1980s were more likely to emphasize happy togetherness, like the racial harmony sought by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder in “Ebony and Ivory” and the group exuberance promoted by Kool & the Gang: “Let’s all celebrate and have a good time.” Diana Ross and Lionel Richie sang of “two hearts that beat as one,” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” emphasized the preciousness of “our life together.”

Today’s songs, according to the researchers’ linguistic analysis, are more likely be about one very special person: the singer. “I’m bringing sexy back,” Justin Timberlake proclaimed in 2006. The year before, Beyoncé exulted in how hot she looked while dancing — “It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement.” And Fergie, who boasted about her “humps” while singing with the Black Eyed Peas, subsequently released a solo album in which she told her lover that she needed quality time alone: “It’s personal, myself and I.”

Two of Dr. DeWall’s co-authors, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge, published a book in 2009 titled “The Narcissism Epidemic," which argued that narcissism is increasingly prevalent among young people — and possibly middle-aged people, too, although it’s hard for anyone to know because most of the available data comes from college students.

For several decades, students have filled out a questionnaire called the Narcissism Personality Inventory, in which they’ve had to choose between two statements like “I try not to be a show-off” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance.” The level of narcissism measured by these questionnaires has been rising since the early 1980s, according to an analysis of campus data by Dr. Twenge and Dr. Campbell.

That trend has been questioned by other researchers who published fresh data from additional students. But in the latest round of the debate, the critics’ data has been reanalyzed by Dr. Twenge, who says that it actually supports her argument. In a meta-analysis published last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Dr. Twenge and Joshua D. Foster looked at data from nearly 50,000 students — including the new data from critics — and concluded that narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades.

Viktor Koen

During this period, there have also been reports of higher levels of loneliness and depression — which may be no coincidence, according to the authors of the song-lyrics study. These researchers, who include Richard S. Pond of the University of Kentucky, note that narcissism has been linked to heightened anger and problems maintaining relationships. Their song-lyrics analysis shows a decline in words related to social connections and positive emotions (like “love” or “sweet”) and an increase in words related to anger and antisocial behavior (like “hate” or “kill”).

“In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people,” says Dr. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.”

Of course, in an amateur nonscientific way, you can find anything you want in song lyrics from any era. Never let it be said that the Rolling Stones were soft and cuddly. In “Sympathy for the Devil” the devil gets his due, and he gets to sing in the first person. In 1989, Bobby Brown bragged that “no one can tell me what to do” in his hit song about his awesomeness, “My Prerogative.

Country singers have always had their moments of self-absorption and self-pity. But the classic somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs aren’t necessarily angry. When Hank Williams sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart” he didn’t mention trashing his sweetheart’s car, as in “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood: “I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights.”

Some psychologists are skeptical that basic personality traits can change much from one generation to the next (or from one culture to another). Even if students are scoring higher on the narcissism questionnaire, these skeptics says, it may just be because today’s students are more willing to admit to feelings that were always there.

Dr. Twenge acknowledges that students today may feel more free to admit that they agree with statements on the questionnaire like “I am going to be a great person” and “I like to look at myself in the mirror.” But self-report bias probably isn’t the only reason for the changing answers, she says, and in any case this new willingness to brag is in itself an important cultural change.

The song-lyrics analysis, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, goes up to 2007, which makes it fairly up-to-date by scientific standards. But by popular music standards, 2007 is an eon ago. Could narcissism have declined since then?

It would take a computerized linguistic analysis to be sure, but there are reasons to doubt it. In 2008, the same year as Weezer’s “Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” Little Jackie had a popular song titled “The World Should Revolve Around Me.”

The current Billboard chart includes the Cee-Lo Green comic ode to hostility with its unprintable refrain (for the Grammy television audience, he changed it to “Forget you”) as well as Keri Hilson’s paean to her own beauty: “All eyes on me when I walk in, no question that this girl’s a 10.” Regardless of whether the singers really mean it, there’s obviously a market for these sentiments.

“The culture isn’t going to change wholesale overnight, and neither are song lyrics,” Dr. Twenge says. But she has some time-honored common-sense advice for people who want to change themselves and their relationships.

“As much as possible, take your ego out of the situation,” Dr. Twenge says. “This is very difficult to do, but the perspective you gain is amazing. Ask yourself, ‘How would I look at this situation if it wasn’t about me?’ Stop thinking about winning all the time. A sure sign something might not be the best value: Charlie Sheen talks about it a lot.”