A while back NPR reported on a study which proved that the lyrics in popular music has become increasingly narcissistic over the last 25 years. In 1985 the #1 song was We Are The World. Now it seems like at least half the songs that are playing on the radio include lyrics that let us all know how fabulous the musical artists who are performing them are. It's easy to spot the trend, from Timberlake who claims to be Bringing Sexy Back to Taio Cruz and Ludacris who are going to Break Your Heart...but that's apparently forgivable because Ludacris doesn't "think there's anybody as bomb" as he is so we need to feel blessed that he's giving us any attention at all.
I asked my Facebook and Twitter followers what they thought about the issue and I got a lot of responses, many of which blamed the rise of narcissism in our pop-culture on the self-aggrandising nature of social media. Others pointed out that narcissism is the foundation of most reality TV.
All that's true but I think the most interesting thing about this pop-culture phenomenon is not that it's on the rise, it's that the public seems to crave it. When I was a teen MTV's The Real World was the big reality show. It topped out at 5.5 million viewers. The Real World San Francisco featured a man named Padro, who was gay and living with AIDS. He became a cultural icon and when he died the President actually issued a statement mourning our nation's loss and thanking him for helping to raise AIDS awareness.
Now MTV's big reality show is Jersey Shore which averages 8.9 million viewers. That's particularly impressive when you consider that The Real World had much less competition than Jersey Shore has (back in the Real World days of my youth most of us didn't have 500 channels and 2 television sets). And who are the Jersey Shore break-out stars? They're the most narcissistic of the bunch. Snooki and The Situation. And yes, we say it's because we like to laugh at them, and some of us do. But the we-just-watch-for-kicks-and-giggles argument sort of went out the window when Rutgers University paid her a $32,000 appearance fee to do a Q and A with their students. And then there are the Real Housewives. The more selfish their behavior the more likely they are to make it on the cover of US Weekly and that's not because US Weekly loves the Real Housewives, it's because they know that enough of us love them to justify plastering their picture on a cover. Many point out that viewers like to look down their noses at reality show stars and that doing so makes them feel like their own lives are more together than they once thought. I can't entirely disagree with that but I think there's more to it.
As for the music, well I'll be the first to admit that I love a lot of those narcissistic songs. When you dance, sing or simply blast them from your car stereo they no longer belong to the musical artists who created them, they belong to you. And therefore those narcissistic lyrics feel personally empowering. And although I'm not a Jersey Shore or Real Housewives fan maybe those who are are driven by similar motivations. After all most of us wouldn't run around acting like a drunk diva (à la Snooki) or as selfishly as one of those bleach blonde Orange County housewives. But maybe part of us wishes we could every once in a while. Maybe we wish we could have a taste of that level of confidence and entitlement. Maybe that's always been the appeal of rock-n-roll. Yes, it's true that Mick Jagger has never gotten on the stage, grabbed the mic and screamed, "There's nobody as bomb as me."
But he sure as hell implied it. And his badass energy continues to infect those of us who tune into it.
And we loove him for it.