So far, I’m not quite old enough to entertain any worries about the youth of the nation or the deficiencies of their character. Plenty of today’s young adults actually strike me as irritatingly great: Growing up with the Internet means they knew by age 10 what I learned last week, and a lot of them seem awfully bold and brave about asserting themselves all over everyone.
My opinion might be in the minority. Lately, the conventional wisdom is that young people think far too much of themselves—they’re coddled little zeppelins of ego in desperate need of shooting down. The cover of July’s Atlantic is emblazoned with the headline how THE CULT OF SELF-ESTEEM IS RUINING OUR KIDS; inside, quotes from psychologist Jean M. Twenge explain how we’re producing generations of feckless narcissists. Earlier this year, the online equivalent of applause greeted a study of pop lyrics from 1980 to 2007 in which a whole team of psychologists, Twenge included, claimed there’s been a rise in narcissism, self-regard, and antisocial hostility at the top of the Billboard charts: Songs have moved from we and us to me and I, and come over all ornery in the process. Surprised? New York Times columnist David Brooks, for one, already saw that as self-evident: “It’s nice,” he wrote, “to have somebody rigorously confirm an impression many of us have formed.”
“Rigorously” is a stretch. The study consists of little more than running ten lyrics per year through a word-counting computer program, which I can’t imagine taking longer than an afternoon. The study’s authors aren’t much interested in music, either: They’re merely using it as collateral evidence of some decades-long cultural slide into self-absorption. Books to their names include The Narcissism Epidemic and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. As that subtitle suggests, these academics fret about a tidal wave of narcissism because they’re convinced it’s bad for the narcissists, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with the world. “They come off as confident,” the study’s co-author, C. Nathan DeWall, told NPR, “but if you insult or provoke them in any way, it sort of breaks their bubble, and they’re very fragile people.” That same week, bubble enthusiast Lady Gaga—who once said, “I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be”—burst into tears when a journalist asked her about her recent single’s resemblance to a Madonna song.
Most of narcissism’s critics, however, do not evince much concern for its sufferers, whom they regard with more Schadenfreude than pity. They just find all this expression of ego to be grating, gauche, and borderline immoral—like wearing tights as pants, talking during movies, or being Snooki. This is our new cultural mini-monster, somewhere down the scale from terrorists and pedophiles, in the general vicinity of Charlie Sheen and those people who go nuts during American Idol auditions: the Raging Narcissist. Press coverage of that music study conveys the sense that a song like Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock”—whose refrain runs, “Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful”—is a substantial threat to the nation’s soul.
The results of the study were announced at a funny moment: right amid a string of hit singles about self-esteem, all operating on the premise that the listener could stand to have more of it. Katy Perry’s “Firework” reassures you that “you don’t have to feel like a waste of space” and exhorts you to “show them what you’re worth.” Pink commands: “Don’t you ever ever feel like you’re less than fuckin’ perfect.” Lady Gaga, Warholian per usual: “We are all born superstars.” Ke$ha: “We’re superstars / We are who we are.”
How you feel about those sentiments probably depends on a few things (including whether you’re the type of person who considers pop music vapid on its face), but it’ll surely end with whom you imagine listening to the songs: the vulnerable souls they’re addressed to, (1) or the preening egotists currently terrifying research psychologists.
1. These songs hit the charts just after Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, reaching out to distraught LGBT teenagers, begins on September 21, 2010.