We hypothesize often that the lyrics of popular country songs and other popular hits are slowly becoming more simplified and dumbed down, but now there is a study that puts data behind this hypothesis. Andrew Powell-Morse of Seat Smart recently took 225 different songs compiled in 4 separate genre datasets from 2005 to 2014, and analyzed them according to Readability Score, which uses writing analysis tools like the Flesch-Kincaid grade index and others to create an average of the U.S. reading level of a piece of text.
By selecting #1 songs that spent at least three weeks topping Billboard’s Pop, Country, Rock, and R&B/Hip-Hop charts, and inputting the lyrics into the Readability Score index, the study resulted in 2,000 individual data points that Seat Smart them broke down by artist and genre.
So where did country music land? According to the Seat Smart study, country music averages at a grade 3.3 reading level. In other words, it’s what you can expect your 3rd grader would be assigned to read as homework.
But surprisingly, this actually scored slightly better than Pop, Rock, and R&B/Hip-Hop. How did country fare so well? “Country music is full of words like Hallelujah, cigarettes, hillbilly, and tacklebox. Add to that long place names like Cincinnati, Louisville, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Country has a serious advantage over the competition,” Seat Smart explains. Still, a 3rd grade competency level is not something to brag about.
And what about individual country music artists? Where did they fare? Carrie Underwood came in first place with an average grade score for her songs of 3.72. No surprise Florida Georgia Line brought up the caboose, grading 2.93 on the Song Smart chart. Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton also scored higher, while Rascal Flatts came in second to last.
In other genres, Eminem came in first in hip-hip, Mariah Carey scored top honors in pop, and Nickelback believe it or not was the top rock act. Who was the worst overall? Ke$ha in the pop category scored an embarrassing 1.5 grade.
Overall the study determined that regardless of artist or genre, popular music is truly getting more simple in lyrical structure in the last 10 years. The study also found no significant difference between the lyrics of male and female artists—they were all in decline. As the author Andrew Powell-Morse points out though, the study “doesn’t touch on the meaning of a song, the metaphors, how the words connect with the artist’s personal story, etc. to create deeper meaning,” so just because a song uses big words, doesn’t mean it’s more intelligent or may have a deeper impact on the listener.
But humans think with words, and vocabulary is the gateway to knowledge and understanding. If popular music continues to decline in its vocabulary, there’s no question this decline could have reverberations throughout society beyond the music people listen to.