Sorry @ComplexMag, Pop Music Isn’t Getting Dumber

from NY Mag

Did you know that over the last ten years, pop music has gotten measurably dumber? That’s the premise of a data-visualization blog postby ticket reseller SeatSmart that’s making the online rounds, helped along by a writeup in Complex. The author, SeatSmart staffer Andrew Powell-Morse, writes that he “analyzed 225 songs in 4 different datasets, resulting in 2,000+ individual data points” — specifically, songs that “spent at least a few weeks (3+) at #1 on the Billboard charts for Pop, Country, Rock, and R&B/Hip-Hop.” Then, he added punctuation and plugged their lyrics, which analyzes a chunk of text and outputs reading levels using a bunch of different preexisting scales.

Here’s what he found:


And here are the average scores by genre:

Average US Reading Level by Grade:
Country: 3.3
Pop: 2.9 (tie)
Rock: 2.9 (tie)
R&B/Hip Hop: 2.6

Clearly, society is crumbling, and clearly Kanye West is leading the idiocy brigade.

Well, not really, because the whole thing is an exercise in silliness. The most thorough debunking of Powell-Morse’s analysis comes from none other than Powell-Morse. Here’s how he explains the between-genre differences:

There are a lot of reasons for this. Remember that I mentioned that word length plays a role? Well, Country is the only genre generally devoid of words like “oh” or “yeah” repeated 20 times in a row. Sorry everyone else, but if you say it in the song, it’s counted as a “lyric.”

But it’s also about the syllables. Country music is full of words like Hallelujah, cigarettes, hillbilly, and tacklebox. Add to that long place names like Cincinnati, Louisville, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Country has a serious advantage over the competition.

Unfortunately for Pop and R&B/Hip-Hop, places like L.A. and New York just don’t score that many points. But take a song like Dani California, and you’ll see that throwing in the word “California” more than a dozen times can make a real difference.

Wait, so simply adding an extra oh brings down the reading level? I was skeptical, so I went over to and entered in the super-smart sentence fragment catastrophic fallibility, which of course scored through the roof. Then I added one oh after another, turning the phrase into catastrophic fallibility ohcatastrophic fallibility oh oh, and so on. Sure enough, on all the reading-level scales the site uses except for one (thank you, SMOG Index, whatever you are), each oh really did bring down the fragment’s score, and therefore the overall “average reading level.” And when I plugged words like cigarettes or Mississippi into the system, it really did rate them quite highly.

Powell-Morse isn’t claiming to be a Ph.D.-level linguist or anything, of course; to a certain point, this is all in good fun. But these days companies, desperately bidding for social-media virality, are releasing all sorts of flashy big-data visualizations and surveys — dozens have bounced harmlessly off my inbox. These “studies” — they’re nearly always described as such — are almost universally shoddy, and, in the aggregate, they probably make it a bit trickier for everyday people to carefully evaluate scientific claims.

“As easy as it is to mock the quality of lyrics today, there’s some real science behind looking at how dumb they truly are,” wrote Powell-Morse in the introduction to his post. As someone who writes about “real science,” the idea that anyone would accept that sentence at face value terrifies me. And sure enough, people are passing this around on Twitter because it’s “science.” Complex went with the headline “A New Study Reveals Chris Brown, Kanye West, and Beyoncé’s Lyrics Are Below a Third Grade Reading Level.” The editor who came up with that should have to write “This was not a ‘study'” on a blackboard a thousand times, Bart Simpson style.

Just for fun, here are some sentences I came up with that rate at a higher grade level than the average pop song in 2015, if we are to accept Powell-Morse’s methodology:

“Hallelujah, ma, we won the slop-off!”

“Me and Nicole ate bugs in a small farm community.”

“I drank cigarettes one night last year.”

Real science!



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