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Nickelback may not be as dumb as you think

A common complaint about today’s popular music is its overt simplicity and lack of thoughtful lyrics. Well, according to one man on a research mission, critics of the ephemeral pop tunes of today may not be just waxing nostalgic for the golden years. A new makeshift analysis shows that over the past 10 years, the reading level of the most popular music has fallen. And as a sign of the times, Nickelback and Blake Shelton rank as two of the most lyrically dense artists of the decade.

Andrew Powell-Morse of SeatSmart.com, a blog dedicated to in-depth analysis of sports and entertainment topics, conducted the quick study. He analyzed 225 popular songs in four different data sets. His criteria for the songs: they had to spend at least three weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts for either Pop, Country, Rock, or R&B/Hip-Hop in the past 10 years. He then ran the lyrics from these songs through multiple writing analysis tools, such as the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test, which determines the reading grade level of written content.

Powell-Morse’s data suggests that over the past 10 years, lyric intelligence in popular music has dropped nearly a grade level. While some years have shown short spikes (2006, 2008, 2013), the overall trend has pointed downward. The results of the data surprised even the researcher himself. “Sure, we know hit music lyrics aren’t the peak of sophistication,” Powell-Morse said, “but who knew the bar was this low?”

The data gets even more interesting when split by genders – male performers seemed to be more consistent, hovering around the third grade reading level, while female performers started sharply declining from 2006 to 2009, dipping below the second grade level. Since then, it’s been a roller coaster ride for female artists in pop, outsmarting the lyrics of their male counterparts in six out of 10 years.

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When split by genres, country scored the highest, averaging a 3.3 (just above 3rd grade level), pop and rock tied for an average of 2.9, while R&B/hip-hop averaged only 2.6. But the bottom spot continued to rotate throughout the decade, which could suggest that each genre had strong and weak years. Some artists have a lyric intelligence way above their genre average, such as Eminem (3.7, genre average 2.6) and Mariah Carey (3.95, genre average 2.9). Ke$ha (1.5, genre average 2.9) and Avenged Sevenfold (2.25, genre average 2.9) didn’t even come close to their genre average. Nickelback (3.3, genre average 2.9), a band that music aficionados love to hate, managed to exceed expectations and top their genre.

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Word counts were also taken into consideration. R&B/hip-hop heavily relies on lyrics, and the genre generally wins the word count war. However, since it has the lowest lyric intelligence average of the four genres, it seems to be “talking a lot and not saying much,” according to Powell-Morse. Pop followed close behind and even surpassed R&B/hip-hop in 2007 and 2010. Rock and country, which seem to rely more on instrumentals, have not passed either R&B/hip-hop or pop in the past 10 years when it comes to word count.

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By individual songs over the last 10 years, however, country reigns king. At the top of the top 10 was country star Blake Shelton’s All About Tonight, measuring in at a 5.8. Rock’s top contribution was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Dani California (5.5). Pop’s top song was Maroon 5’s She Will Be Loved (5.0), while R&B/hip-hop’s topper was Rihanna’s Diamonds at a 4.7, largely keeping in line with the ranking of their genres’ averages.

So which are the 10 “dumbest” songs over the past 10 years, at least, according to reading level? Three Days Grace was the bottom of the barrel with The Good Life (0.8), while Melanie Fiona’s It Kills Me scored a 1 and was the bottom-feeder for R&B/hip-hop. Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera teamed up to “win” the pop category with Moves Like Jagger (1.2). Country has no nominations for the the bottom 10, with rock “winning” the category overall.

Powell-Morse does give a disclaimer in the beginning that qualitative data (such as meaning of a song, metaphors, the artist’s personal story being told in the song) wasn’t taken into account. “Perhaps we can be a little less judgmental of elementary schoolers (you know who you are). It also wouldn’t hurt to be a little more judgmental of contemporary songwriters. More than anything, these findings are a reminder of just how fun dumb can be. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he concluded.

And no, this doesn’t mean you actually have to like Nickelback (3.3), but they sure have a leg up on Ke$ha (1.5) when it comes to lyrics reading level.