Is Today’s Top Music Smart?

Published September 2015, 

A couple of months ago, a study was released that found that the most popular music we listen to now is only written at a third-grade reading level. Performed by Andrew Powell- Morse of SeatSmart, the study researched the reading levels of 225 songs on the Billboard’s Top Pop, Country, Rock, and Hip-Hop charts over the last ten years.

These charts included songs from artists, such as: Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Nickelback, Linkin Park, Mariah Carey, Adele, and many more.

The smartest song went to Blake Shelton for “All About Tonight.” The song, which was released in 2010 and has a 5.8 average grade level, contained a word count of 311 with 3.9 characters per word, and 1.3 syllables per word. The “dumbest” song over the last ten years went to Three Days Grace for “The Good Life.” The song was also released in 2010 and has an average grade level of 0.8. It has a word count of 215 with 3.1 characters per word and 1.1 syllables per word.

You can find the entire report here, but the point is can we really be surprised that our current music obsessions aren’t “smart”? Not really. Much of our popular entertainment today isn’t advanced, well-articulated, or even mildly insightful, so it’s a given that our music would correspond with the way we consume information (more pictures, less words, to the point, etc.). The report does bring up an interesting question though: what really makes a song “smart” in the first place?

Most people who have listened to the radio at some point in the last ten years, can easily agree that top 40 isn’t particularly impressive. Yes, it might be catchy and yes, the artists may have good voices. However, is there more than that?

No matter how smart a song is lyrically, people listen to music for a variety of reasons. To simplify a song’s “smartness” by its ability to not be understood by anybody below the age of 10 kind of diminishes how inspiring and smart it may be in other ways, something Powell-Morse does touch on briefly throughout the report. For example, a song that may not be at a high reading level can still be rhythmically or thematically impressive, be produced in a highly technical way, or even have a striking visual aspect to accompany it.

“Wide Awake” by Katy Perry, which has an average grade level of 1.5 with a 354 word, 3.4 characters per word, and 1.2 syllables per word, may be considered one of the “dumbest songs over the last 10 years”, but many who are fans of Perry can easily attest to the emotional intelligence and honesty that the song exudes (both of which a third grader may not have the capacity to fully understand).

Much in the same vein, “The Pretender” by Foo Fighters only has an average grade level of 2.7, with a 499 word count, 3.4 syllables per word, and 1.2 characters per word. While the actual words in the lyrics may not be difficult to read, this is easily one of Foo Fighters’ most popular songs. With incredible breakdowns and lyrics such as “The page is out of print/We are not permanent/We’re temporary, temporary/Same old story”, it’s obvious that “The Pretender” is insightful and complex.

However individuals want to classify “smartness”, we can all agree that the music we listen to is a reflection of us. If listeners demand more from their top musicians, whether it be smarter lyrics, better beats, more-intricate guitar parts, whatever, artists will have to step up to the plate and deliver just that.

If “dumb” songs become popular, it’s because we as listeners want them to be. We buy the CDs, request the songs on the radio, and memorize their lyrics. So, when a producer and a songwriter sit down together ready to make a hit, they make what sells. Until we as consumers make “smartness” relevant, we’re going to continue to promote, celebrate, and buy into dumb songs.


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