War is stupid and people are stupid.” So goes the opening line of Culture Club’s 1984 single “The War Song.” It doesn’t quite hit the lyrical heights of the great ’60s peace anthems, but it’s a pretty snappy pop song. Boy George would probably be the first to admit that he is no Bob Dylan. But try telling that to the countless music journalists who have put the song on their worst-ever lists over the years. As one critic put it: “Your lyrics are stupid. You’re stupid.”
A bit harsh, but not out of the ordinary. Gripes about the brain-rotting, soul-corrupting power of popular music are as old as the form itself. In 1949, crowd-pleaser Oscar Hammerstein’s contention that “There is nothing like a dame” was greeted with the same degree of critical contempt as the Black Eyed Peas’ observation that “You love my lady lumps.” Pop, as ever, is held up as a symbol of everything that is wrong with the youth of today.
Little surprise, then, that the media have been all over a new study titled “Lyric Intelligence in Popular Music,” whose opening sentence is “Popular music lyrics are dumb,” and whose findings have been gleefully reported by outlets around the world.
In the study, Andrew Powell-Morse, a director of marketing at ticket agency SeatSmart, scrutinized 225 songs released over the last decade that have topped the Billboard charts for at least three weeks, feeding their lyrics into an online mechanism that rates sentences on readability scales like Flesch-Kincaid. His conclusion is that the reading level of pop lyrics is on a steep downward curve — from an average grade level of 3.25 in 2005 to 2.75 in 2014.
Powell-Morse also took time to break things down: Hip-hop is dumber than country, Lady Gaga is dumber than Adele, Kanye is dumber than Drake, and the dumbest song of the decade is 2010’s “The Good Life” by Three Days Grace, with a reading level suitable for about age 6.
The margins aren’t huge — the least dumb hip-hop star is Eminem, whose average grade level is 3.7 (Beyonce brings up the rear on 2.25), while Nickelback get a respectable 3.3, which will come as a surprise to many, given that the Canadian rockers, as Powell-Morse puts it, “are a band that everyone just loves to throw under the bus.”
But Nickelback haters needn’t be too concerned. Despite Powell-Morse’s assertion that “there’s some real science” behind his study, the methodology is so limited as to be effectively meaningless. (“Nickelback has greatest arbitrary number, claims random blogger,” wrote Macleans.) The algorithms involved gauge factors like word length and sentence structure, but pay no mind to allusion, metaphor, or broader meaning. By these standards, Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” is suitable for kids of about 11, while you’d have to be at least 15 to grapple with the lyrics to Trey Songz’ “LOL Smiley Face.” And let’s not even get started on “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
“At the end of the day, it’s just intended to be a fun and interesting study,” says Powell-Morse, who allows that he has been surprised by the blast furnace of opinion that has greeted his findings on Twitter (Sexist! Racist! Elitist!). “I thought it would get people talking, but not as much as they are.”
Less viral was a recent paper from researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, who found that more successful music tends to be more formulaic, especially so in recent times. “The idea that lyrical intelligence seems to have lowered over the past decade is interesting, and in line with our findings, that musical instrumentation complexity is diminishing,” says Stefan Thurner, one of the authors. “A group in Spain has found that harmonic structure is also getting simpler.”
For all its faults, Powell-Morse’s study has at least raised — or revived— some interesting questions about the purpose of song lyrics. Does lyrical complexity equate to musical superiority? Does a multisyllabic stew like Supertramp’s “Logical Song” have greater value than Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga”? And if so, where does that leave the long and illustrious lyrical tradition that foregoes actual words in favor of fa-fas and na-nas, dum-dums and doo-wahs, coo-ca-choos and alop-bam-booms?
Dai Griffiths, a senior lecturer in music at England’s Oxford Brookes University, says that such nonsense words sometimes amount to a kind of lyrical throat-clearing. “ ‘De do do do, de da da da,’ said the Police, but that phrase kicks off an interesting song,” he says. “Often songs start in babble words, and develop precise meaning and syntax along the way.” And yet, as New York University songwriting professor Phil Galdston points out, chants and yelps and grunts are increasingly taking center stage. Among the most memorable refrains over the last decade has been Outkast’s “Hey ya!” and Kesha’s “Blah Blah Blah.”
Galdston, whose credits include Vanessa Williams’s “Save the Best For Last,” is a firm believer in the merit of simple lyrics and even infant-friendly gobbledygook. “I have written songs like that,” he says. “Why? Because it is a tribal experience, it cuts across language. Of course, there can be great value in communicating emotion in an articulate way, but articulation is in the eye, or the ear, of the beholder.”
Sam Harris, of the New York indie band X Ambassadors, who cowrote Rihanna’s recent single “American Oxygen,” argues that the very act of rating songs suggests a combination of intellectual snobbery and ignorance. “A song might seem dumbed down, as if someone has been, ‘OK, cool, blah-blah-blah,’ ” he says, “but people don’t realize that a lot of work goes into writing a catchy pop song. Not every song has to be some heavy political diatribe.”
A good example, Harris says, is Kelis’s 2003 hit “Milkshake,” whose chorus (”My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard”) would not be described as cerebral, but which “has a sense of humor and is a little weird and gets stuck in your head.” The important thing, for Harris, is that the lyrics reflect the speech patterns and interests of its audience, as silly and simplistic as these may seem. “You don’t approach writing a song in the same way you do an essay,” he says. “My songs are way more colloquial and simple; sometimes they don’t even make sense.”
Galdston agrees. “It comes down to how you define ‘intelligent,’ and whether that means arch and arty,” he says. “Some of the best songwriters have been great conversationalists. Paul Simon’s ‘America’ is a man talking to his sleeping girlfriend. Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ begins with her walking out on her lover in a bar. I don’t think either song is looking to be particularly erudite.”
Boston-based poet and Pulitzer-winning music critic Lloyd Schwartz is a huge admirer of both Cole Porter and Elizabeth Bishop, in part because they convey complex thoughts and emotions using simple, everyday language. “One of the things you expect in songs and poetry is that there is going to be some kind of music in the words,” he says. “And that could be lyrical or the music of real speech.”
But surely there are limits. “LOL Smiley Face,” a song about sexting, is filled with lines like “Kiss me through the phone, LOL smiley face / We can go and kick it bae, later at my place.” While these sentiments may be a faithful representation of the kinds of messages teens are sending to each other, surely that’s no excuse to foist them on the general public. “No, I dig this,” Galdston says, listening to the song as we speak. “ ‘Shorty just text me, say she wanna sex me.’ Man, that is good.”
For Galdston, like Harris, the bottom line is that a song should appeal to its audience. A philosophy major might get a kick out of deconstructing R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” but a 16-year-old probably won’t. What’s makes “LOL” work is that the rhymes are good, the beat is good — and there’s no messy intellectual content to spoil the mood. “When we make people think as opposed to feel,” Galdston says, “we are in danger of losing the emotional power.”
Or, as Nirvana once put it (grade level 1.3): “I think I’m dumb / Or maybe just happy.”