Once upon a time, when Carly Simon sang her hit song, “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Song is about You)”, fans tried to guess which of her former lovers she was essentially calling a pompous, self-regarding ass (Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? Kris Kristofferson?).
The current crop of performers are singing their own tunes, thank you very much, reminding their audiences just how hot, how sexy, how empowered and yes, how pissed off they are. Now three psychologists who’ve been checking out Billboard’s Top 100 have made a discovery: in 2011, we’re all so vain.
image: baby pictures.org
The three—Nathan DeWall, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge—conducted a study of song lyrics over the last thirty years and noted an evolution (or devolution) in pop music. Where in the 1980s, most singers sang about love, togetherness and peace, today’s tunes are ego-driven. The doctors cite lyrics from performers like Beyoncé and Fergie of Black-Eyed Peas. They claim the self-absorption manifest by the singers is reflected in the generation of fans (primarily college age). “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” says Dr. DeWall. Adds his colleague, Dr. Twenge, “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.”
Twenge, who along with Campbell also published a book a few years ago called The Narcissism Epidemic, sees the current crop of young people as far more narcissistic than previous generations. The authors take as evidence the results of an annual survey—The Narcissism Personality Inventory—that’s been administered to college students over the past several decades.
Narcissism has been in the news lately. Last winter’s recommendation from an advisory board to leave out Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the upcoming version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (psychotherapy’s diagnostic Holy Grail) was met with outrage by many in the psychiatric community. A Boston Globe article at the time noted that “narcissism has been done in by its own success. Because so many narcissists are thriving—at the expense of the rest of us—it’s hard to classify ‘narcissism’ as a disability.”
Small wonder in the age of “Brand Me.”
If certain levels of vanity, selfishness, entitlement and an exaggerated self-regard are becoming more acceptable, the implications for society are profound—and not just because we are confronted with the likes of Donald Trump, the man who would be king of the world. An increase in ego-centric behavior is bound to affect (if it hasn’t already) the way we conduct business, make policy, view social services–or communal activities or charity—and build and sustain relationships.
As a certified amateur/armchair psychologist, I’ve joined many others in writing about (and worrying about) our national predilection for self-absorption. A great many of our fellow citizens young and old seem to have difficulty separating what they need from what they think they ought to have. We talk about what we deserve or we are owed. We demand not just our rights but also attention. We get angry when we’re denied our due. It’s all about us, each and every one of us.
On the other hand…
Maybe we’re not suffering from mass narcissism, or at least not to any degree greater than previous age groups. Each generation has something to say about the one that came before and certainly the one that came after. As a baby boomer, I’m beginning to take umbrage with the spate of articles castigating me and my fellow boomers for our selfishness. Meanwhile, we are not without suggestions for ways to curb our self-regard. In recent weeks, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat have both proposed that we Americans add back a little hellfire into our religion. We’ve apparently got it too easy with our relaxed acceptance of a benign Supreme Being. Brooks and Douthat suggest we need the threat of eternal damnation. Nothing like cosmic intimidation to keep us humble.
As for college kids, that they’re self-serving and self-regarding and prone to posturing should be no surprise to anyone. Perhaps it’s become more socially acceptable to flaunt your hotness or sexiness or to tell people you don’t like to go f-ck themselves. Maybe it’s more permissible, or even necessary in this hyper-competitive age, to let people know how important you are—even when you’re taking a survey that measures your self-regard.
The students are also angrier and more depressed, according to the results of a survey last January I reviewed at the time. Like the study of song lyrics, the survey is one that takes into consideration only the past twenty-five year period. Since my memory extends back twice that far, I can’t help but suspect that we are in some kind of cycle wherein our nation mood coincides with our recent history.
Moreover, we’ve always been entertained by large personalities, as long as we don’t have to hang out with (or live with) them. Performers may have “come out” in terms of broadcasting their fabulousness but ego has long been a staple of the entertainment industry. The word “diva” has morphed from being a female opera singer of surpassing skill to a female vocalist with a big voice to a woman with an outsized ego—a bitch. Lyrics that express pride in being a bitch (or a bad-ass) among female singers are more common, but again, no surprise. After years of singing about busted promises and broken hearts, the women have been kicking back for at least a decade. Somehow the message seems less about self-centeredness than about empowerment. Who wouldn’t want to take a Louisville slugger to the beloved car of a low-life two timer as Cary Underwood does? These days, though, I prefer Sara Bareilles’ approach. If “King of Everything” were what my daughter listened to, I wouldn’t worry a bit about whether she thought the song was about her.