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Pop music is getting simpler, more repetitive, narcissistic and angry

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In recent decades, there’s been a noticeable shift in the world of pop music, and it’s not just your nostalgia acting up.

Song lyrics has transformed dramatically, veering towards simplicity, repetition, and a discernible dip in joyfulness. A comprehensive new study shedding light on this phenomenon was recently published, finding that contemporary song lyrics are not only getting simpler and more repetitive but are also embodying themes of anger and self-obsession more than ever before.

Conducted by a group of European researchers, this study meticulously analyzed over 12,000 English-language songs spanning various genres—rap, country, pop, R&B, and rock—from the years 1980 to 2020. The findings of this study are not just statistical observations but offer a deeper insight into how cultural values, emotions, and preoccupations have evolved (or perhaps, devolved) over the past four decades.

To set the stage, the researchers draw a contrast with the days when songwriting giants like Bob Dylan won Nobel prizes in literature for their lyrical prowess. Fast forward to the present day, and the study’s senior author, Eva Zangerle from the University of Innsbruck, pointedly avoids singling out individual artists for having simplistic lyrics.

Instead, she posits that lyrics serve as a mirror to society, reflecting its shifting values and emotional preoccupations.

Zangerle also highlights the transformative changes in music consumption over the past 40 years—from vinyl records and cassette tapes in the 80s, through the CD era of the 90s, and into today’s age of algorithm-driven streaming platforms. This ever-evolving landscape of music consumption has, in part, contributed to the alterations in lyrical content and style.

Diving into the specifics, the study found a general trend across all genres towards simplicity and repetitiveness in lyrics. Moreover, there’s been a decline in positive, joyful lyrical expressions, with a corresponding rise in expressions of anger, disgust, or sadness.

A particularly stark increase in self-centered narcissistic language was also noted, with more frequent use of words like “me” and “mine”.

Rap music, in particular, stood out for its significant increase in repetitive lines over the decades, coupled with a growing tendency towards angry themes. Interestingly, when looking at the lyric website Genius, researchers noted that rock music fans primarily sought out lyrics from older songs rather than new releases.

This could suggest a growing nostalgia for the genre’s glory days, with contemporary offerings failing to resonate as deeply.

Another noteworthy finding was the importance of a song’s first 10-15 seconds in determining whether a listener decides to skip it or not. This insight correlates with the observation that music today is often consumed in the background, leading to a preference for songs that quickly catch the listener’s attention with catchy, repetitive choruses and simple lyrics.

Zangerle’s personal experience echoes these findings, noting how songs nowadays are designed to be more memorable, courtesy of their straightforward and repetitive nature. It seems the music industry has adapted to the tastes and consumption habits of today’s audience, prioritizing immediate engagement over lyrical complexity or diversity.

What does this mean for the future of music? While the study stops short of making predictions, it’s clear that as society continues to evolve, so too will the nature of its music.

Whether this trend towards simplicity and repetition is merely a phase or indicative of a more permanent shift remains to be seen. One thing, however, is certain: the landscape of music and its lyrics is a dynamic reflection of the cultural zeitgeist, continuously shaped by the changing tides of technology, societal values, and human emotion.