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, 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.

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.


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.

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.


From Jay Rock to Saba, these are the 50 best albums of 2018

We've spent the year listening to new albums, digging deep, and culling our master list into 50 favorites. From blockbuster releases to hidden gems, these are the best albums of 2018.
Home Theater

How to master your equalizer settings for the perfect sound

You may know what an EQ is, but do you know how to adjust equalizer settings for the best possible sound? We go through the basics of the modern EQ and lay out some guidelines for how to achieve tip-top sound from your system.

Spotify is the best streaming service, but its competitors aren’t far behind

It can be hard to decide which music streaming service is for you, so we've picked out the individual strengths of the most popular services, aiming to make your decision a little easier.

Jam out in style with the 25 best playlists on Spotify

Music is the world's most potent drug, and the best playlists on Spotify will make you catch feelings. We've scoured the service for its top collections, and brought them together in one place -- for you.
Social Media

What do yodeling and Kylie Jenner have in common? YouTube’s top 2018 videos

In a true nod to the variety found on YouTube, the platform's top 10 list of videos from 2018 range from celebrities to sports, from perfectly tossing a picture frame on the wall to a kid yodeling in aisle 12 at Walmart.

From Paul McCartney to Mariah Carey, this is the best holiday music

Whether you're a fan of classic jazz standards or modern R&B masterpieces, there's something for everyone on our playlist of the best holiday music. Pour some eggnog and curl up by the fire, this one is sure to get you in the holiday…

Apple Music may sign up more exclusive artists with purchase of Platoon

Apple purchased London-based Platoon, which is a startup that helps independent musicians get discovered by major labels. The acquisition may help Apple Music sign up more exclusive artists.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and other that do ... nothing particularly useful.

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…

Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ becomes the most-streamed 20th-century song

Queen's iconic Bohemian Rhapsody has become the most-streamed 20th-century song. Knocking Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit off the top spot, the British band's 1975 classic has now been streamed 1.6 billion times globally.

Tune in to the best internet radio stations for your listening pleasure

Even in the streaming era, radio stations get some of the best exclusives and curate some of the finest handpicked playlists around. Here are the best internet radio stations, for your listening pleasure.
Home Theater

Radiohead, The Cure, and more to join Rock Hall of Fame. Listen to their hits

Radiohead, The Cure, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, and more have been selected to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. Here are our favorite songs from the four artists' hit-filled careers.

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.

The best new music this week: Bruce Springsteen, The Decemberists, and more

Are you looking for the best new music? Each week, we scour the internet to find the most compelling new releases just for you. On tap this week: Bruce Springsteen, The Decemberists, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.