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From ‘You’re So Vain’ to ‘I’m So Great’

Boasting is big in today’s pop hits.

By Tom Jacobs


Taylor Swift performs onstage during The 58th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on February 15, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Love songs have always dominated the pop charts, and the current era is no exception. But today, the singer’s object of affection is very often that stunning someone they see in the mirror.

A newstudy reports self-regard, self-promotion, and plain old bragging are far more prominent in pop music than they were a quarter-century ago.

“The results of this study indicate a change in the nature of popular music,” Pam McAuslan and Marie Waung of the University of Michigan–Dearborn write in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

They note that, in 1990, blatant bragging was basically confined to rap music. But over the next 20 years, this tendency “spread to other genres such as R&B, dance/electronic, and pop. And these are the genres that dominate the charts in 2010, and appeal to younger audiences.”

Somewhere, George Harrison’s guitar is gently weeping.

“Music both reflects and influences the values of the culture.”

McAuslan and Waung analyzed the lyrics of the top 100 songs from the years 1990, 2000, and 2010, as compiled by Billboard magazine. (Its ratings are based on sales, streaming, radio airplay, and “audience impressions.”) Coders looked for examples of eight categories of self-promotion, including referring to oneself by name and demanding respect.

“Compared with earlier years, songs in 2010 were more likely to include the singer referring to the self by name, general self-promotion, and bragging about wealth, partner’s appearance, or sexual prowess,” the researchers report. “A similar, albeit nonsignificant increase, was also seen for bragging about musical prowess and demands for respect. Overall, the most popular music from 2010 contained more self-promotion than music from 1990 or 2000.”

Not surprisingly, “songs by male artists, and in genres dominated by male artists, were most likely to contain self-promotion,” the researchers write. “Rap music increased in popularity (over the two decades), and was most likely to contain self-promoting messages.”

However, they also found lyrics in the pop genre have changed over that person, “with the music now increasingly likely to contain self-promotion, bragging, and demands for respect.”

“The tendency for self-promotion has continued in rap music, but has spread to other genres, such as R&B, dance/electronic, and pop,” they report.

So does this trend reflect, or promote, an increasingly narcissistic society? The researchers suggest the answer is most likely both.

“Music both reflects and influences the values of the culture,” McAuslan and Waung write. The hit songs we listen to “both represent the increasing individualistic/narcissistic tendencies in the culture, but also further convey that promoting oneself through bragging, demands for respect, and self-focus is acceptable.”

Given this reality, “parents, educators, and those responsible for policy should consider how strongly individualistic messages influence young people,” they conclude, “and work to provide messages and opportunities that also advocate communal values.”

This is all rather ironic, given that music most likely evolved as a way to establish connection and solidarity. If Cole Porter was alive today, he’d probably be writing I Get a Kick Out of Me.