Gen Y: Vanity and Narcissism Through Music?

Reading Time: ~5 minutes

This wasn’t the exact title of the recent New York Times article. It was The Huffington Post-esque “A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics.” Of course, I wasn’t really that upset or offended by the title, I was a little exasperated. I’ve touched on newspapers and their desperate appeal to their vastly middle-aged to older audiences through generational slamming before.

No, I phrased it the way I thought that the title should have been phrased: as a question. A generation’s vanity, heard through lyrics?

So then, I could answer: no. 

This article cites research that claims that, by analzying songs with the words “me” in it, instead of, say, “we” – and finding that the word “hate” was more present than “love” – researchers concluded that Generation Y’s levels of narcissim have reached zen-like levels of self-loving enlightenment.

First, let it be known that one of the researchers – one Jean Twenge – has already been capitalizing on the near-hysteria surrounding “Generation Me” through a book which earned a rave “confused and confusing polemic” from one Amazon reviewer and a 3.5 star review overall.

Never mind that baby boomers have also been hailed as the “most self-absorbed generation in American history.”  And the Me Generation. Never mind that they continue to supply their detractors (not me) with sad survey results.

Never mind that the volunteer rates for millennials was 21.6% between 2007 and 2009, just barely less than the 23.7% of seniors – many of whom are retired. Not to mention that volunteering and humane corporate policies have been shown to attract millennials more than their predecessors.

But, seriously. Like The New York Times “reports,” songs like “I’m Bringing Sexy Back” and “Check On It” exult in a single person’s beauty and greatness. And Twenge’s research absolutely deserves room in a newspaper.

Right, because that’s why people listen to Justin Timberlake – to hear him sing about how great he, himself, is… despite the fact that, in some interviews, he has said that what he has really learned is that if you’re just kind of talented, you have to spread yourself around so no one notices (paraphrased badly).

So why is there a sudden uptick in the “me” and less of the “we” in music?Because people are inhabiting a fictional narrative through which to gain inspiration, elation, revelation, or catharsis. That’s what songs are. That’s what they always have been. Artistically, they have become a way to explore yourself by connecting with others, often the artist.

The “I” actually shows that other people are feeling the same way. Mostly, this started with rap and nowadays I think “I” has become a popular vehicle through which to express sentiment and experience across genres.

People who listen to Ke$ha don’t actually hope to brush their teeth with “a bottle of Jack.” They hope to, for a brief few minutes, inhabit that same kind of representation of freedom and carelessness. Music has always been a metaphor for emotion, not a literal description of what you’re going to do.

So, when, as The New York Times says, Carrie Underwood sings “I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights” in “Before He Cheats,” she isn’t actually doing that. She actually doesn’t plan to do it. And listeners won’t run to the nearest sports store and do the same. But they will feel some gratification through the metaphor for Underwood’s anger, but also the strength and freedom that it represents. She’s hurt, but she is working through it.

Of course, rap is the least understood genre when it comes to deciphering narcissim in music. But it comes to the same thing – rappers are singing about what they have experienced to communicate that message, and the attitude that has to come with it, to people outside of that sphere and to inspire those inside of it.

To me, this video (not safe for work, explicit language) sums up the perceived hostile message with the underlying idea represented by the visual.

Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer for the band Tool – often referred to as dismal, dark, or unholy and balancing between death metal and alt rock, said that “his music serves the main purpose of a cathartic valve through which to express and explore himself and his surroundings.”

Please let me note, however, that I’m not defending most musicians, who have come to believe that they are deities because of constant deification, nor crappy music. Nor am I defending a lot of the listeners, many of whom I loathe for pushing Justin Bieber and Kanye West above actual musicians. But I respect their choices of music… well, no, I don’t, but I respect that they have chosen to listen to some kind of music, because I understand what music means.

Instead, I’m defending the way most listeners use music, even if it’s poppy garbage manufactured by jaded record labels. This research overlooks one simple fact:

People are consuming music on an unimaginable scale and therefore seek easy access to new sensations. In short, the iPod is a remote control for emotion. 

I’m at the low end of the scale and I have about 3,000 songs on my iPod. If I want to feel a certain way, or not feel a certain way, I can immediately switch from death metal to jam band to classical. In this era, no one is going to stick to one message for as long anymore.

We don’t generally plunge into one album and listen to it on repeat for a few weeks. Hell, a lot of people don’t even own a whole album anymore (mostly uncultured barbarians).

Not only that, there are more genres of music available than ever before. That means that there’s a little something for everyone, on varying levels of extremity, from emo to death metal to rap to punk to ska to pop to world to classic to math rock to alt rock to rock to hard rock to techno to electronica and just about everything else. It also means that there are a lot more corners and crevices to explore, and sentimental sediment to be unearthed.

The best part? Twenge and a colleague published a book called “The Narcissim Epidemic” and “argued that narcissism is increasingly prevalent among young people – and possibly middle-aged people, too, although it’s hard for anyone to know because most of the available data comes from college students.”

So, actually, the reason young people are the most narcisstic (according to loaded questionnaires that asked students things like “I am going to be a great person”) is because there is no available data to compare them to other generations – other than song lyrics.

In this same article, by the way, Twenge says “late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before” yet somehow is immune to results of her own reseearch that are reported – in the same article – that there are “higher levels of loneliness and depression” on campus. But that’s attributed to the narcissitic song lyrics. But wait, so is the egotism.

Hm, so maybe that’s because we love ourselves more than the whole world. Yes, according to Twenge and co., but… uh… is there any sociological proof of this other than vague questionnaires and a song lyric analysis from 1980 to 2007 that was based on computer models? If only there was a way to find out other things about the generation… oh wait, I just did that by looking at something simple like volunteer rates. And actually living as a 23-year-old in Boston, therefore knowing a good number of these apparently narcissistic, lonely, depressed, angry, hateful individuals.

But actually looking at facts sadly, blandly, proves that personality traits in generations stay much more the same than they change.

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