Dum-Diddly-DUMB

220px-TiK_ToK_-_Kesha_(official_single_cover)I came across an article from May of 2015 (there are many on the subject) that mourned the dumbing down of American music based on the reading grade-level of the lyrics. The average ability one needs to read modern lyrics is a whopping  second grade reading level. Hip hop scored worst, with short little repetitive words that needed only a first-grader’s ability to read. Country music was the Big Brain, with a reading level of third grade and a few months. I found that a bit shocking.

You can find one of those informative studies here http://seatsmart.com/blog/lyric-intelligence/
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There are many criticisms of such a study. One is that they only covered music in the last ten years. Was music really all that smarter 20, 30, 50 years ago? Another is that repetition dumbs down the word level:

(Ke$ha, TiK ToK, Billboard #1 January 2010) (NUMBER 1 SONG IN AMERICA)
I’m talkin’ bout – everybody getting crunk, crunk
Boys tryna touch my junk, junk
Gonna smack him if he getting too drunk, drunk
Now, now – we goin’ ’til they kick us out, out
Or the police shut us down, down
Police shut us down, down
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I’m not sure it’s the repetition that’s dumbing that down.
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The other major complaint is how reading scores are measured: most have a mathematical formula that juggles word length, sentence length, or syllable length, and messes them around until an average is found. This is not always accurate, especially with poetry or lyrics, which may have 100 words before coming to the actual end of a sentence.

I had to find this out for myself. After all, we survived songs like “Doo Wah Diddy” and “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.” I took a variety of older songs and plugged them through https://readability-score.com/, which uses fivChild in school distracted_0e different reading assessment tools to come to an average score. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease was developed by the Navy, so that technical manuals wouldn’t get too difficult to understand. A score of 90 or better is good for a 6th-grade student, 60 or higher is good for high school students, and 30 or less is best left to college students (i.e., higher score is easier to read). Because the formula isn’t perfect it is possible, on the grade-level equivalent, to score well above a “grade” (as in, grade level 62).  That’s the number of years of schooling you may need to understand it. Ideally, if it’s for the average Joe or Jane on the street, you want a grade level of 8.  Don’t take it literally; just understand that the higher above 8 you go, the more complex it is to read.

Here was what I found when I ran nine popular songs through the analyzer:

Francis Scott Key, The Star Spangled Banner (1814) Everyone knows this one! Reading Ease: 87.6 (grade 7 or so). Average reading level – grade 7.3
Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land (1940) Come on! Okey folky here. Woody Guthrie was by far not an educated man. Reading ease: 33.8 (that’s in the college range). Average grade level: 37  (Blame no punctuation.)
Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock (1957) We’re talking Elvis. Hound dogs. Blue suede shoes. Reading ease: 77. 2 (high school). Average reading level: Grade 6.2
Frank Sinatra, A Very Good Year (1961) Thoughtful, but not Shakespeare, right? Average grade level: 11.6
The Supremes, Baby Love (1964)  Oooh, Baby Love, the reading ease is 54, with a grade level of 14, which, again, is almost guaranteed to be a result of no punctuation.
Bob Dylan, The Hurricane (1975) Ok, folk music by nature is going to score higher, because it tells a whole story. I only did the first four stanzas. Reading ease? 16.3. Grade level? 24.7  Big long sentences with grammar!
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) Let’s face it. Scaramouche isn’t in a Ginn Reader, or even a Lippincott or Scott Foresman. Reading ease? 43. Grade level: 16.3. That’s a senior in college.  Thunderbolt and lightning.
The Police, De Do Do Do (1980) (Talk about repetition!) reading ease: 63. Grade level: 47.
REM, Drive (1992) Reading ease: 101.9 (that’s grade 5ish). Average reading level: 2.2  Ah! So music DID die off at the end of the 80’s!

knobAnd just for kicks (because it came up on my iTunes): Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Substitutiary Locomotion (1971) (remember, this is a Disney kid’s movie): Reading Ease: 4.1 (that’s PhD level), and a grade level of 18.  A catchy kid’s tune.

#What it means:
Okay, even I was surprised. I expected lyrics to have come down, but I didn’t realize it was by that much. Don’t bother with “scores,” just read the lyrics. I did The Police as a joke, because that much repetition was certain to skew things down, but no: the rest of the lyrics have words like jamming transmissions, not baby words. I thought for sure Woody Guthrie would prove a point, but his lyrics, too, are full of long words and long sentences and imagery. Elvis? Really? Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone,  Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone. It’s not junk, junk. The Hurricane I knew would score high – it’s about as close to an entire novel as you can sing without going back into Child Ballads.
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While the measuring tool isn’t precise – measuring sentence length in a lyric that doesn’t use punctuation gives false positives as to complexity – the word lengths counter some of it (we know it obviously does not take a PhD to understand Police lyrics). All in all, I have to agree: many modern music lyrics are about as intelligent as dirty dishwater, and the content is worthless. All you need to succeed is some gibberish, a loud driving beat, a fast groove of the hips, and a really good publicity team to get you air time. The music industry is about money; artists are about the art and the message. Hence we’re here  discussing Sinatra and Elvis and Queen, who haven’t been around in decades, and no one remembers who had the number one hit four years ago.

On Our Shelves: New Music for March

Music comes in more flavors than Bernie Bott’s Beans. No matter what your taste or style, there’s always something new being released – even from musicians long-deceased.  Here are a few recent releases on our shelves:

Life, Love, & Hope  by Boston

    Boston’s been around forever, it seems – their first eponymous album debuted in 1976 and reached number 3 on the album charts, and subsequent albums only climbed higher.  With the untimely death of lead singer Brian Delp in 2007, Boston underwent some changes, and to be honest, hearing them live in concert, they didn’t seem to have it anymore.  However, with the release of Life, Love, & Hope, their sixth album, Boston seems to have recovered: not quite the same, but with enough of the old magic to bring back the spark that gave them their identity. The same driving beats, the same luscious harmonies, but a little lighter, a little crisper, a little fresher to attract a new generation.  For a band that’s been around almost 40 years, that’s a difficult – and truly wonderful – thing to do. If you want something new or are longing for some updated nostalgia, this is a great album to try.

High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen

        High Hopes bills itself as a rare, unreleased tracks album, which it may indeed be, but we’ve heard some of these before.  It’s wonderful to hear a non-live version of 41 Shots, but the album doesn’t add any real surprises. There’s not a bad track on it, but nothing particularly stands out. If you love Springsteen (and there’s a lot to love), then this album will give you exactly that – more. Not better, not bad, just more quality music, a long encore to a fabulous concert from a musician who’s as strong as ever.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches

   They pronounce it “churches,” but I pronounce the V anyway.  A synth-pop band from Scotland, Chvrches is a group that bridges a number of different music styles.  Like light modern popular radio music?  This is a great album.  Like a techno electronic sound with actual understandable lyrics to go with it? This is a great album.  Miss some of the 80’s pop from bands like Human League or The Fixx, or the sweet sounds of Sixpence None the Richer?  Then you will love this album.  Light, joyful, and not overpowering, there’s a wide variety of song styles to keep you entertained.  It’s been  a long time since I found a new popular band that has caught my attention this much, and I hope to hear more from them in the future. Give them a try!

Croz by David Crosby

Like Springsteen’s High Hopes, if you like Crosby, Stills, & Nash, you will probably enjoy David Crosby’s new album. Harking back to the band’s late-60’s melodies, this is more of the style you remember, an open, wandering melody with a touch of Eastern feel that could almost be filed under Jazz. Nothing jumps out and grabs you, it’s just a solid continuation of the old-style catalog.

 

 

Susan Reviews: The Last Ship

Sting (born Gordon Sumner) is one of those hold-overs from the last golden age of music.  His career took off as lead singer for the band The Police, whose pop singles such as “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” scored gold even when re-released. Since the break-up of The Police in 1986, Sting has had his share of solo chart-topping success with power albums such as Dream of the Blue Turtles, but I’m not sure his latest endeavor, The Last Ship, will do as well.

Don’t get me wrong – the album is lovely and showcases Sting’s wide range of talents in a heavy northern accent we didn’t hear during his Police years.  The songs – his first after a ten-year writing hiatus while he dealt with the deaths of his parents – are soft, almost melancholy, exploring the closing of the shipyards in the town he’d grown up in.  It’s a long, long way from “Roxanne” or “King of Pain.” Instead, we’re left with an album that vacillates between traditional-sounding folk tunes (the haunting title track, “The Last Ship,” which never seems to want to leave your head) and soft Sunday-brunch jazz (“August wind”).  If there’s a bad side to the album, it’s that it lacks the wider scope of variety we’ve come to expect from Sting as he has explored various types of music, from pop to rock to jazz to symphony.

If you love soft music, or ballads, or folk music, you’ll enjoy this album, The tunes are haunting, the lyrics thoughtful, with a presence so strong you feel as if you’re walking the streets through an old British-Isles sea town.  If you’re looking for chart-climbing pop singles, go back to Fields of Gold.