Is popular music getting dumber? Yesterday, a study released by Andrew Powell-Morse confirmed what most of us already know: that when it comes to lyrics of hit songs, well, it ain't exactly Shakespeare.
Morse's study concludes, after analyzing 225 songs that spent more than three weeks atop the Billboard charts for Pop, Country, Rock, and R&B/Hip-Hop in the past decade, that the average hit song is written at a third-grade reading level.
Around KQED, this got us talking about how songs actually educate us, as well, serving as adjunct professors of vocabulary for our curious ears. Think about it: how many words do you use today because some clever songwriter decided to include them in a song? From the mystifying “semolina” in the Beatles' “I am the Walrus,” to Fugazi's use of “langour” in “Turnover,” there are certain words that I know I'll always associate with songs — ones that caused me to immediately run to the dictionary to unfold their meanings.
Below, some examples of words we've learned from our earbuds. What are yours?
"Anesthetize" -- Elvis Costello, "Radio, Radio"
Already one of the most danceable take-downs of the music industry's payola-driven underbelly ever written, Costello's "Radio Radio," off his 1978 record This Year's Model, got an extra jolt of flipped-bird appeal thanks to the singer's unscheduled performance of it on Saturday Night Live -- a stunt that got him banned from the show for the next 12 years. (He was eventually, and amusingly, allowed back.) But it was Costello's ability to make the clunky word "anesthetize" roll off the tongue in a lyric so full of venom he might as well have been spitting it out for his own safety that appealed to my ears as a seventh grader, when I first started making my way through the history of political, punk-inflected British new wave. "You either shut up or get cut up / they don't wanna hear about it / It's only inches on the reel-to-reel / And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel." Condemning the corporate media machine and padding a 12-year-old's vocabulary: What's not to love?
“Reciprocity" -- Lauryn Hill, "Ex-Factor"
As an album, the incomparable 1998 debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill will always mark the point, 13 years old, when I started actively buying my own music funded by the sudden influx of babysitting cash. Now, I hear Lauryn sing "Tell me who I have to be / to gain some reciprocity?" and my heart aches for her -- but back then I'd never heard the word "reciprocity," and my ears registered it as "red surprised tea." I thought it was maybe an American thing, and asked my mum. To this day it remains one of my very favorite, gorgeously sibilant words to say.
"Nihilism" -- Rancid, "Nihilism"
Probably the strangest word to ever be used for the chorus of a punk rock track, but like any good punk song, the word isn't sung -- it's shouted. When I heard it, I don't think I tried to use it because, well, how often do you throw around "nihilism" in casual conversation? And if you look at the full lyrics of this catchy-and-fast-as-heck rocker, there's not much discussion of philosophy, morality or even despair -- it's just about a dude drinking too much and feeling sad. But the word comes up in the song so much that the most braindead of gutter punks will wonder what the heck it means, and they might have even reached for a dictionary, like I did.
"Windscreen" -- The Rolling Stones, "Get Off My Cloud"
I officially discovered Top 40 radio -- WLS, in my hometown of Chicago -- in the fall of 1965. With proper respect for the misleading specificity of memory, I think the first song that I felt really compelled to sing along with was "Get Off of My Cloud," by the Rolling Stones. That exposed me to the notion that there was a language out there that sounded like English but was somehow different from what I was used to. The foreignness of key words along with Mick Jagger's delivery meant that I could only fake most of the lyrics. Eventually, I figured out that "block" meant "apartment building" in British, "pounds" were the money they spent over there in Great Britain, the "Union Jack" was a flag, and "windscreen" was the British-ism for windshield. It was like a social studies class -- and it's still a great song.
“Devious” — Eric B. and Rakim, “Paid in Full”
In hip-hop, it'd be tempting to pick a word out of Aesop Rock's vast catalog — after all, he was named the rapper with the highest vocabulary in a recent analysis of hip-hop lyrics — but I can't lie: I was 12 when “Paid in Full” came out, and I rewound it over and over, listening intensely so I could write down all the lyrics. “I used to be a stick-up kid / So I think of all the devious things I did” isn't the greatest couplet in the song, but the word “devious” had me stumped enough to look up its definition. When you're 12 and you find out what “devious” means, it's a pre-adolescent revelation: all you want in life, from that point on, is to be devious.
"Wuthering" -- Kate Bush, "Wuthering Heights"
British songstress Kate Bush was 18 years old when she wrote this song, her first hit, based on Emily Bronte's famous novel of demonic, haunting passions set in northern England. I was just starting elementary school when the song was released in 1978, and I thought Bush looked like a sorceress with a voice to match. My friend Esther and I used to sing the chorus in the schoolyard in cackling, witchy trebles. (I am embarrassed now to think about our bad imitations of Bush's athletic, careening voice.) One day, I stopped mid-screech and said: "Wait, what's 'wuthering'?" Esther shrugged. Then she said: "It's like 'withering,' only with a northern accent." That night I asked my dad. I learned that 'wuthering' means blustery and windswept, like the northern moors upon which Bronte's story takes place. So in a sense Esther was correct -- the word does, in a way, have a northern accent.