"Narcissus," by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1597-1599)

Narcissism on the Rise in American Pop Music?

"Narcissus," by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1597-1599)
“Narcissus,” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (ca 1597-1599)

On my facebook feed, Eric Edberg had posted a link about the internet “narcissism epidemic.”  It linked to a piece talking about a NYT piece about the rise of “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music” (here’s an NPR talk with the researcher).  This seems to follow a trend towards narcissism and hostility in [American] society in general.

For several decades, students have filled out a questionnaire called the Narcissism Personality Inventory, in which they’ve had to choose between two statements like “I try not to be a show-off” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance.” The level of narcissism measured by these questionnaires has been rising since the early 1980s, according to an analysis of campus data by Dr. Twenge and Dr. Campbell.

That trend has been questioned by other researchers who published fresh data from additional students. But in the latest round of the debate, the critics’ data has been reanalyzed by Dr. Twenge, who says that it actually supports her argument. In a meta-analysis published last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Dr. Twenge and Joshua D. Foster looked at data from nearly 50,000 students — including the new data from critics — and concluded that narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades.

During this period, there have also been reports of higher levels of loneliness and depression — which may be no coincidence, according to the authors of the song-lyrics study.

And I think the push back in media and amongst the “Chicken Little Think Tank” regarding the so-called “decline in classical music” don’t often consider the larger societal issues and the possible negative effects that can accompany a shift in musical culture (if such a shift is actually happening as they claim it).

American Symphony Orchestras are still one of the few musical institutions in the world where blind auditions create a relatively equal representation of sex in Orchestras as opposed to what is [still] a predominantly “boys club” type of environment found in pop music circles–and with all the concomitant sexism issues.  There’s always been a bit of a Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll aesthetic associated with the history of popular music since the formation of Rock and I don’t really see that going away too soon (though I must admit that it has evolved a bit).

I still remember what it was like to be playing the non-classical and local pop music circuit.  Women and girls were so infrequently performers that (as I mentioned in a comment to my Looking good can make you play worse… post) comments like the ubiquitous “she’s only in the band because she’s screwing one of the band members” were seriously offered as a reason for the rare appearance of a female performer on stage.  Not something that could be seriously entertained in a climate with blind auditions.

There are far more female performers in bands today than in the past, so such sexist reasoning has faded more in the background (hence why I think things have evolved a bit) but other interesting issues have become more commonplace.

The big question is, if narcissism has some survival value, how narcissistic can a population get before it becomes maladaptive?


  1. I could say something about how, in general the industrial revolution and attendant technology has optimized our culture to stimulate ALL senses to a point that we never evolved to handle, and how that’s screwed us all up and continues to do so because every single stimulation we engage in now from music to porn to communication to movies to potato chips has been scientifically designed to addict at the lowest limbic-system level …

    Basically, every single one of us is in some way an addict nowdays. And addicts are inherently narcissistic. At this point I really do think that’s what it boils down to. It’s an unpopular thing to say, but it’s true — crap food, first-person shooters, porn, Facebook … the industrial revolution ramped it all up to a level that we were not designed to handle. Think about what there could possibly have been for the average working Roman schlub to compulsively do over and over 24/7, to gorge on, to fake-kill, to check every six seconds like we have nowdays. Only royalty lived a life that poked them in the pleasure centers to anywhere near that extent, and they didn’t even come close. Only out-and-out drugs could do to a cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer’s brain what our daily life does to ours.

    Wall-E got it wrong. Most of the chair-riding blobs in that world wouldn’t have been so placid. They would all have been the hostile narcissists these studies found.

    Anyhow. A bit of dark realism for your Friday afternoon …


  2. Are you saying that a shift away from classical music enjoyment in American culture at large, if it exists, would exacerbate this problem, so therefore we should… what? Or are you saying that enjoying classical music is inherently anti-narcissistic because of blind auditions? I’m not sure what conclusion you’re trying to draw about classical music as relates to this cultural shift.


    • The classical music world, especially the people who call themselves its “saviors,” seeks to emulate the pop world and often refers to it as a model for what they should be doing. What I got out of Jon’s article is that there’s also an awful lot of hideous crap in the pop world that the classical world is relatively free of, and that if they seek to become like the pop music world, they will welcome a lot of destructive garbage into the concert hall along with (what they falsely believe to be) all that wonderful hipness and money.


      • Interestingly, the only person who replied to this on my facebook wall is another female composer/musician/physicist friend of mine–she related some of her personal experiences with the sexism in the pop music world!


    • I think fireandair nailed it on the head, Aaron. Or at least that’s the argument I’ve made in the past regarding using popular culture as a “new” model for classical music. And I do get what you mentioned in one of my previous posts that some of these new pop music models are just retoolings of what the classical music field has been doing.

      Now I’m thinking, given some of the studies mentioned above that wasn’t specifically about narcissism in pop but just in the general vulture, that there may be something else (e.g. new technologies which lower the entry barrier) that may be helping to drive the sense of self-entitlement that complements the narcissistic attitude.


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