Pop-culture narcissism again

« previous post | next post »

I'm in Minneapolis for a meeting of the LSA executive committee, and yesterday afternoon, on the plane from Philadelphia, I listened all the way through to Lee Atwater's extraordinary 1990 album, "Red, Hot and Blue". At the time these tracks were recorded, Atwater was chairman of the Republican National Committee, fresh from his successful role managing George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. And as you can hear if you listen to the guitar and vocal stylings on his signature tune Bad Boy, Atwater was also a pretty fair R&B musician:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

But as I listened, primed by DeWall et al. on narcissism in pop culture, my reaction was "Gee, there sure are a lot of first-person singular pronouns here":

Well I'm bad,
You know I'm bad as I can be …

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I transcribed some lyrics and did some counts. So far, the champion is I Take What I Want, where roughly one word in five (20.8%, by my count) is some kind of first-person singular pronoun:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Actually, it's possible that Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu beats it, depending on how many "words" you count in things like  "be my hootchie-cootchie-coo — if you take the various four- and five-syllable nonsense strings to be single words, then Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu weighs in at 21.6% first-singular pronouns:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Bad Boy, in contrast, is only 14.9% first-person singular  pronouns (in part because of the escalating repetitions of "bad" as the song progresses, which reaches "Well I'm a bad bad bad bad boy" by the end).

But the thing is, even 14.9% is well above the peak of the yearly first-singular pronoun counts recorded in Dewall et al., which we can bring back in the conveninent graphical form provided by Cosma Shalizi:

So I can now echo John Tierney's description of DeWall et al.'s research: I found what I was looking for.

But how to integrate my results with theirs? Atwater and friends (the musicians included B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, and other greats) made their recording in 1990, when (according to Table 1 in DeWall et al.) the mean percentage of first-singular pronouns in song lyrics was 6.59%, and the upper bound of the 95% confidence interval was 10.15%. But all the songs that Atwater et al. recorded were R&B classics from the 1950s and 1960s. I take what I want was a hit for Sam & Dave in 1965, for example.

And Bad Boy was on Eric Clapton's solo album in 1969.

So maybe the 1960s were even more self-involved and sociopathic than the 1990s and 2000s? And these attitudes were revived and promoted in American culture, not by hip hop, but by the Republican Party?

In my opinion, those are preposterous ideas, though they're not much worse than the way that DeWall et al.'s research has been promoted in the popular press.

Describing one of Lee Atwater's last political hit jobs, according to Wikipedia, Bob Dole once said on the Senate floor "This is not politics. This is garbage." It's hard to beat that as a negative evaluation.

By the way, did anyone in the 1960s ever comment on how strange and kind of creepy the lyrics of I take what I want are? For example,

Gonna pick you up now,
Carry you away.
So you better pack up
Cause you leaving today.
Here I come.
I'm a big bad man.
When I walk away baby,
You be holding my hand.

I take what I want,
I'm a bad go-getter, yeah.
Yes I am.
I'm never a loser,
And I'm never a quitter, no. Oh no.
Cause I take what I want,
((and)) baby, I want you. Yes, you.

I'm gonna take your heart.
I'm gonna take your mind.
I'm gonna take your soul.

And speaking of such things, don't miss Lee Atwater's 1981 interview with Alexander Lamis, quoted in his Wikipedia entry. as reprinted in the NYT in 2005.


  1. Kai said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    Still, perhaps the most under discussed aspect of this research is the assumption that first person pronouns are directly linked with narcissism. While the data supporting this idea is ridiculous (and oft ridiculed) I've seen very few make the point that even if the data were exactly what DeWall et al said, their main point is based on an unprovable assumption.

    Just like the Out of Africa phoneme study.

    [(myl) See Jamie Pennebaker's discussion of these issues, "What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009; and his forthcoming book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. As in any other area, there's the possibility for good science and sound scholarship, and there's plenty of space for other things as well.]

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Someone was playing the Beatles album Hard Day's Night the other day, and, similarly primed by the LL post, I noticed what seemed a high number of 1st person singular pronouns.

    By my count they make up 13% of the words on the album (323 out of 2480).

    [(myl) 1964. I think we have a pattern here…]

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    Thinking about the Beatles got me thinking. Hard Day's Night is all or mostly love songs of one kind or another. "Falling in love" (as distinct from, say, married for 25 years love) seems to me a pretty narcissistic state. So of course a lot of FPS.

    Then I remembered some of the later albums. So many of Paul's 3rd-person ventures (Elenore Rigby, She's Leaving Home, Rocky Raccoon), first-person plural (Within you, Without You), second-person singular (Lucy in the Sky, Sexy Sadie), mixed-person-weird (Nowhere Man, I am the Walrus, Good Morning, Good Morning) . . .

    Any fan knows that the music evolved over the band's career, but I never looked at it from this perspective before, except maybe to notice it and move on.

    I'm suddenly thinking of having my comp students look at Pennebaker's very readable web page and use it as a lens to analyze song lyrics, maybe even the Fab Four's.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    I see what I think of as narcissism (probably not what the word means technically) as a great social evil in modern American culture. This theory of mine is cocktail party chatter, not remotely scholarly or defensible in intellectual circles, just a pet theory, probably based mostly on the recency illusion. But primed as I am to detect what I think of as narcissistic behavior all around me, I don't feel the slightest twinge of recognition with any hypothesis that using first-person pronouns is remotely connected. How does this stuff get published? (6.5%)

  5. Kai said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    Thinking of the Beatles and FPP makes me wonder how "I Me Mine" is counted. The song is a criticism of narcissism, but it's hard to think of a song with a higher percentage (especially in the chorus.)

  6. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    "I Take What I Want" lyrics reminded me of a story I read about songs people request at weddings.

    Apparently a popular request is "Every Breath You Take," by the Police. As someone in the article observed, the song isn't romantic, it is about a stalker: "Every breath you take, every move you make, … I'll be watching you."

    When the music is pretty, as the melody is in "Every Breath You Take," I think many listeners miss the creepiness of the lyrics because they rely on the musical cues to convey the emotion of the lyrics, something they might not do with straight text.

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    The common language notion of "narcissism" is interesting and useful–though I think its utility is limited. I'm not certain that there's ever been a time when the majority of people weren't self-obsessed, selfish, and project themselves excessively onto the external world.

    What I find much more interesting is the more technical, clinical notion of "narcissism". The way I've come to understand narcissism as a personality disorder is as a kind of stunted psychosocial emotional intelligence. Prior to some point in early child development, certainly during infancy, one's emotional state is very tightly bound to a child's caregivers. Internally developing emotional states such as discomfort driven by bodily needs, and the corresponding states such as comfort/satisfaction/happiness are (in non-neglected children) directly mediated by caregivers. The infant intuitively and experientially understands their inner emotional state as being a function of the behavior of others.

    At some later developmental point, in the toddler years, I think, a child begins to become aware of their own emotional state as an internal experience that they can mediate for themselves directly. In other words, they begin to take responsibility for it.

    A narcissist is an individual who never reached that developmental stage. He/she views all the people in their lives as being responsible in some real, practical sense (right and wrong don't come into it) for their own emotional state. As a result, they engage with other people as if other people exist to mediate their emotions. They can be grandiose, selfish, generous, brilliant, petty, and always manipulative. While in some sense it seems as if they are solipsistic, it's really beside the point whether or not they see other people as separate autonomous individuals. Because, ultimately, the narcissist is in a real and sad sense at the mercy of the world around them, always dependent upon their interactions with others, and their ability to manipulate others, in order to try and avoid pain and achieve contentment.

    Given that notion of narcissism, I think it's very interesting to ask if and how much a, or our, culture is narcissistic. How much is American foreign policy narcissistic? And how much of our pop culture is essentially narcissistic in this more clinical sense–that is, how much are we taught by popular culture to use other people, and particularly acquisition and consumption, as a means to mediate our own emotional state? And, like a clinical narcissist, is this in some sense a quixotic, self-defeating, vicious-cycle trap where the more we do so, the more we find we're out-of-balance, frantic, desperate for just the right car or pair of shoes or gadget which will make us truly happy, or at least stave off the despair?

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    @Keith: Well, yeah, sure, all that. But it's really off-topic here, and I was trying to focus more or less on the pronoun question, not get into Erikson and all.

  9. maidhc said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 2:26 am

    I have a family member who really is narcissistic in the way described by Keith M Ellis (he has been variously diagnosed as autistic or bipolar). For example, if he dawdles and misses the bus, instead of saying "Oh rats, I missed the bus!", he will go into a tirade about how the bus agency is run by crooked politicians. But I have not noticed that he uses first person pronouns any more than anyone else. This is only a sample of one, but it tends to invalidate the basic underlying assumption of the study.

  10. Simon Wright said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 6:52 am

    As I remember it, The Beatles' use of the first person was noted at the time, and was thought to be a really refreshing change.

    [(myl) Right, because before the Fab Four arrived, the pop charts were dominated by me-less stuff like the 1959 hits "Lonely Boy" (Paul Anka) at 12% FPSP, "Dream Lover" (Bobby Darin) at 14.7%, and "Till I kissed you" (Everly Brothers) at 14.6%.]

  11. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    @Dick Margulis, it's sort of off-topic. Narcissism as understood closer to the technical sense may well be detectable as a cultural tendency via the lyrics of pop music. Probably not so much by counting first-person pronouns, though.

    In any case, I'm grateful for LL's and Mark's continued focus (and implicit ridicule) of this trope. It seems to me to be egregious crap. It's just so stupidly simpleminded and obviously intended to be used as a justification for one's prejudgments. Obama is a narcissist! We've proven it scientifically! Song lyrics demonstrate our culture's descent into narcissistic debasement and dissolution! Just like Rome!

    Also those drooping pants. If that doesn't indicate the decline of western civilization, I don't know what could.

    What also grates is that I have been targeted by this trope.

    I use the first-person pronoun for two different purposes, both for considered reasons. First, I try to avoid making objective universal assertions and, instead, attempt to emphasis my subjectivity. Not because I'm wishy-washy and an intense relativist, but because I think discourse is more productive when it doesn't become a contest of competing universal assertions. Second, I often write and speak anecdotally, partly for the same reasons, and partly because I think one should always attempt to link the general with the specific. Neither of these purposes are indicative of my desire to make everything about me. Indeed, I see it quite the opposite, actually. People who make objective, universal statements which are, nevertheless, clearly the result of their own limited experience and knowledge are implicitly imposing themselves onto everyone else. They're implicitly denying that other people have different views and experiences.

    The particular person who repeatedly used this trope as a criticism of me is, in this regard, my opposite. And I found his writing as annoying and suspect as he seemed to find mine. To my mind, his writing seemed very passive/aggressive. Always asserting his own point of view as if it were objective fact while obscuring that it was merely his own point of view.

    And, really, I think this is quite relevant to LL because doesn't this trope really originate from the dubious advice of writing teachers and from certain conventions of formal writing which people wrongly generalize as applying to all writing? It originates in prescriptivism and has all the hallmarks of prescriptivist peevism; including, I think, the psychosocial motivations.

  12. ShadowFox said,

    May 1, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    I would have thought Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf lyrics would have a high percentage, but I just ran through Mannish Boy and it was only 13.5%, not counting a and the. Including the articles, it's under 10%–but, in large part, because of repeated words and spelling out of MAN and BOY. What about running a ratio of 1st person singular pronouns (Pn1s) to the total count of N+Pn? This would leave out a lot of noise.

    The problem with indexing is that it is necessarily one-dimensional. So multiple representations of the same data may give a better perspective on the situation.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    Lyrics of popular songs are a specialized and stylized subgenre that do not strictly follow the (descriptivist) grammatical conventions of either normal prose or normal conversation. This has been true for a long time (did 19th C. AmEng speakers generally use the distinctive syntax shown by the pattern of "my true love for to see" in other contexts?). So carrying over peeves applicable to those other contexts may be dumb regardless of the merits of the peeves in their original context. That said, rather than just doing division by pronoun, it would be interesting (although who knows what it would mean?) to see if the proportion of first-person narrative to third-person narrative in, say, Top 40 hits has changed over time in some sort of pattern. It would likewise be interesting to know if the first-person narrator to third-person narrator ratio has changed over time in best-selling novels, although that doesn't mean any such change would be evidence of "narcissism" or its absence. And you could probably split the first-person narratives down further, based on, e.g., whether they address a second-person "you" versus referring to the other primary character(s) in third person.

RSS feed for comments on this post