Is popular music getting dumber?

No-one would argue that pop music lyrics are the height of intelligence. But new research has revealed that the average eight-year-old would be able to comfortably read the lyrics of most hit songs.

Writer Andrew Powell-Morse carried out a study on the SeatSmart blog where he used the Readability Score that analyses writing to create an average US reading level of a piece of text. After analysing 225 songs that had spent at least three weeks at number one on the Billboard charts for pop, country, rock, or hip-hop for any given year, he found that over the last 10 years third graders would not have struggled with the lyrics of the most popular songs.

What was interesting however is that lyrics appear to have dumbed down over the years. In 2005, chart-toppers read between a third and fourth grade level, but a decade later that average has declined fast. Last year’s Billboard number one singles averaged between a second and third grade reading level, with the trend declining steadily over the last 10 years.

Interestingly, country music comes out with the most sophisticated lyrics, with a reading grade of 3.3, whereas hip-hop lagged behind with a reading grade of just 2.6. Although there is perhaps a logical reason for this – country music tends to lack the ‘oh’ and ‘yeah’ lyrics that are so commonly repeated in pop, rock and hip-hop songs.

Additionally, the grade score takes into account the number of syllables words have, and as words such as hallelujah, cigarettes and tacklebox are fairly commonplace in country music it has a clear advantage over other genres.

When you look at the data on an individual level for artists, it gets even more fascinating. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Eminem tops the list for hip-hop artists with an average grade level of 3.7, with Nicki Minaj and Macklemore not far behind. Bringing up the rear, however, are Kanye West, Chris Brown and Beyoncé. 

This data shows that the number of words in a song does not necessarily mean that it is automatically more sophisticated: Kanye West has the longest songs, with an average of over 800 words and yet only achieves a reading grade level of 2.8 – essentially, he’s talking a lot and not saying much.

A lot of music fans would also argue that the data suggests that a higher reading grade does not necessarily mean better music, as Nickelback top the list for rock artists with a grade of 3.3. Although on the whole, rock artists stay pretty firmly between the second and third grades in terms of how complicated their lyrics are.

Of the 225 songs that Powell-Morse analysed, Ke$ha scored the worst of any of the major artists by a large margin, with an average grade level of just 1.5, although with lyrics such as “everybody getting crunk, crunk, boys tryin’ to touch my junk, junk”, is that really surprising?

Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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