Analyzing The Pop Charts: Is Social Science Rockist? : The Record In which we propose that collecting data and listening to songs are two really different things.
NPR logo This Whole Social Science Analysis Of The Pop Charts Thing Is Getting Out Of Hand

This Whole Social Science Analysis Of The Pop Charts Thing Is Getting Out Of Hand

Child bored out of his mind, listening to something.
Marilyn Nieves/

Um, are all social scientists rockist? Yesterday, Michele Norris talked to Dr. Nathan DeWall, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, about his study that analyzed hit songs from 1980 and 2007 and found a correlation between the prevalence of egotistical song lyrics and narcissism in society in general.

"These popular song lyrics are really a mirror of cultural changes in personality traits and motivations and emotions and things like that," DeWall said of songs like Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back" and Weezer's "Variations on a Shaker Hymn," which has a refrain that goes, "I am the greatest man that ever lived." In his study, such songs stand opposite Kool & the Gang's "Celebrate" and Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory" — songs of yore that celebrate togetherness.

In recent years, DeWall says, cultural changes have swung toward narcissism and pop songs have mirrored the swing, reinforcing "this idea in American culture that 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."

That pop music would be linked with youth in the media is a no-brainer, and Maura Johnston, over at the Village Voice's Sound of the City blog, has already done an entertaining job of wondering whether these kinds of studies exist solely to confirm the anti-youth biases of the people who conduct them.

Clearly, social scientists want to draw a line between the most popular music and the era in which it's created, but the way they collect data is inevitably divorced from the way people actually listen to songs — one ridiculous set of criteria gets matched with another. One study using Billboard chart data found that songs whose lyrics had more words per sentence (a measurement the researchers took to indicate "more meaningful themes and content") tended to be "popular during threatening social and economic conditions." Another used Billboard's numbers to compare beat variance to market turbulence: apparently, the popularity of simple songs with a regular beat predicts volatility in the economy. So we decided to take an opposite view: studies like this are all 100 percent correct, and you should totally reshape your life around what they say.

Making these studies relevant to the people who actually listen to pop music inevitably requires a stretch. So when they're covered in the media, they're often pitched to concerned parents — "music contains tiny insects that invade your child's pancreas and make her incapable of digesting protein" and stuff — so here, for parents, is a single paragraph containing all the relevant information science has to tell you about music:

If you want your kids to be healthy, and to be smart, make sure they listen to music. Just not while they're studying. If you want them to be happy, make sure they listen to music. As long as you're okay with the fact that it'll make them depressed. Oh, whatever. Your kids are going to listen to music, and they'll probably be awesome. Just don't be surprised when they remind you of that fact constantly.