Study: Narcissism On Rise In Pop Lyrics

A psychology professor at the University of Kentucky analyzed hit songs between 1980 and 2007 and found a correlation between egotistical song lyrics and increasing narcissism in society. Michele Norris talks with Dr. Nathan DeWall about his study.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On this very day in 1985, the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 was...

(Soundbite of song, "We Are the World")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer): (Singing) We are the world. We are the children.

NORRIS: Fast-forward to 2007 when Timbaland's "Give It to Me" featuring Nelly Furtado topped the charts.

(Soundbite of song, "Give It to Me")

Ms. NELLY FURTADO (Singer): (Singing) ...love my ass and my abs in the video for "Promiscuous." My style is ridiculous.

NORRIS: So more than two decades ago, we were holding hands and swaying to a song of unity, and these days, we're bouncing to pop stars singing about how fabulous they are.

Psychologist Nathan DeWall has had the pleasure of listening to it all for research, and he found that lyrics in pop music from 1980 to 2007 reflect increasing narcissism in society. And DeWall is an associate psychology professor at the University of Kentucky and he joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHAN DEWALL (Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky): Thanks for having me, Michele.

NORRIS: So I'm curious. What's the inspiration for a study like this? Were you listening to the radio?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEWALL: It's a very good question. Yes, I was. I was listening to a song that, really, one of my favorite bands, Weezer, had on one of their albums recently, and it's called "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived," and I kept wondering, who would actually say that out loud?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived")

WEEZER (Music Group): (Singing) I am the greatest man that ever lived. I was born to give and give and give.

Mr. DEWALL: The ironic thing is it's a song about how I'm the greatest person in the world, but it's to the tune of "'Tis A Gift To Be Simple," which is a song about humility. And so what I wanted to do, instead of relying on self-report measures of personality like narcissism, I wanted to actually go into our culture, our cultural products, which are tangible artifacts of our cultural environment. And so, for that, I thought maybe song lyrics would be a very good jumping-off spot.

NORRIS: And what did you find?

Mr. DEWALL: What we found over time is that there's an increasing focus on me and my instead of we and our and us. So, for example, instead of talking about love being between we and us and us finding new things together, it's mostly about how, you know, for example, Justin Timberlake in 2006 said...

(Soundbite of song, "Sexy Back")

Mr. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE (Singer): (Singing) I'm bringing sexy back. Yeah. Them other boys don't know how to act. Yeah.

Mr. DEWALL: What we think is that these popular song lyrics are really a mirror of cultural changes in personality, traits, and motivations and emotions and things like that.

NORRIS: You know, when you're talking about increased narcissism in music, I guess one word comes to mind for me: Kanye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEWALL: That would be a quintessential example of narcissism, sort of feeling like you really know everything, that you know what's best, that if you don't win awards, it's not that objectively you weren't as good as other people, it's just that people don't really understand how great you are.

(Soundbite of song, "Can't Tell Me Nothing")

Mr. KANYE WEST (Musician): (Singing) La, la, la, la, then you can't tell me nothing, right? Excuse me. Was you saying something? Uh-uh, you can't tell me nothing. Ha, ha. You can't tell me nothing.

NORRIS: So how does this affect the way teens and young adults and even old folks who listen to this music function in society and think about themselves as they sing along to all this?

Mr. DEWALL: It reinforces this idea in American culture that we really need to focus on how people feel about themselves. You know, we can't really threaten other people's self-esteem. We can't give them accurate feedback about who they really are. People who are very narcissistic, they come off as very confident, but if you insult them or provoke them in any way, it sort of breaks their bubble, and they're very fragile people.

NORRIS: Well, Nathan DeWall, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. DEWALL: Thank you.

NORRIS: Nathan DeWall is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. He analyzed pop hits over nearly three decades and found narcissism is on the rise. His article is published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

(Soundbite of song, "My Humps")

FERGIE (Member, Black Eyed Peas): (Singing) My hump, my hump, my hump, my hump. My hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely little lumps. Check it out. I drive these brothers crazy. I do it on the daily. They treat me really nicely. They buy me all these ices. Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi and the Donna Karan, they be sharing all their money, got me wearing fly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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