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Has Music Been 'Dumbed Down' in the 21st Century?

Has Music Been 'Dumbed Down' in the 21st Century?

The Telegraph, one of the U.K.’s newspapers of record, recently reported on a study published in the journal Scientific Reports of 12,000 English-speaking songs produced between 1980 and 2020.

Results?

Modern songs have been dumbed down since the ’80s and are now more repetitive. Specifically, there has been a trend across genres toward the “simplification of lyrics and an overuse of choruses.” Further, the “vocabulary range has also shrunk and the structure of the songs made more predictable.”

The combination of streaming platforms and the short attention span of today’s audience has forced musicians and producers to make “ever-catchier music that stops listeners from skipping to the next song.” In earlier decades, the necessity of purchasing a physical album or (later) CD meant that this was less of an issue “and artists could spend more time crafting intellectually stimulating music.”

Case in point?

The authors of the study say Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 song Spirit in the Night is a good example of complex writing that told a story, whereas the 2019 song Slide Away by Miley Cyrus is not.

Here’s how Springsteen’s classic begins:

Crazy Janey and her mission man

Were back in the alley tradin’ hands
 ’Long came Wild Billy with his friend G-Man
 All duded up for Saturday night
 Well, Billy slammed on his coaster brakes
 And said, “Anybody want to go on up to Greasy Lake?”
 It’s about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88
 I got a bottle of rose so let’s try it
 We’ll pick up Hazy Davy and Killer Joe
 And I’ll take you all out to where the gypsy angels go
 They’re built like light
 Ooh, and they dance like spirits in the night (all night)
 In the night (all night)
 Oh, you don’t know what they can do to you
 Spirits in the night (all night)
 Oh, in the night (all night)
 Stand right up now and let it shoot through you

Here’s how the song by Cyrus begins: 

Woo-ooh, woo-ooh, woo-ooh
 Woo-ooh, woo-ooh, woo-ooh

Once upon a time it was paradise
 Once upon a time I was paralyzed
 Think I’m gonna miss these harbour lights
 But it’s time to let it go
 Once upon a time it was made for us
 Woke up one day, it had turned to dust
 Baby, we were found, but now we’re lost
 So it’s time to let it go

I want my house in the hills
 Don’t want the whiskey and pills
 I don’t give up easily
 But I don’t think I’m down

So won’t you slide away
 Back to the ocean, I’ll go back to the city lights
 So won’t you slide away
 Back to the ocean, la-la-la, you’ll slide away
 So won’t you slide away
 Back to the ocean, I’ll go back to the city lights
 So won’t you slide away
 Back to the ocean, la-la-la, you’ll slide away

Point made. 

Perhaps more telling was another trend the study identified: an increase in anger across all genres, with music getting more emotional and personal. Interestingly, among the genres, only rap has had an increase in positive words over time. Another revelation is that music today is consumed in a more passive format, such as in the background to other activities.

In understanding our world, music should not be overlooked. I once heard a professor in seminary quip that more people learned their theology from the hymnbook than the Bible, making a case that the songs we listen to and sing matter.

He was right.

And not just the ones in the hymnbook.

James Emery White

Sources

Joe Pinkstone, “Modern Songs Have Been Dumbed Down Since the Eighties and Are More Repetitive Now, Study Finds,” The Telegraph, March 28, 2024, read online.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/flisk

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.