Hit songs are getting wordier:
Average word count of top-ten songs during the 1960s: 176
Average last year: 436
That’s from the latest Harper’s Index, via Marginal Revolution. I think this trend is pretty clearly a result of hip-hop and rap. Compare some Phil Spector Wall of Sound single – say, “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes – to some recent smash hit, like Umbrella or Lollipop, and it’s easy to hear all those extra words. These new songs are not only faster but much, much wordier. (The slow decay of top 40 radio also means that songs can cross the three minute rubicon. Both Umbrella and Lollipop, for instance, are more than four minutes long.)
Sometimes, when I’m enjoying the shuffle feature on my iPod, I think about all the new musical inputs our auditory cortex has had to learn to deal with over the last hundred years. First, there was the birth of atonality, led by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Tonic chords stopped resolving themselves; the prettiness of the past gave way to intentional displays of dissonance. Then there was jazz, bebop, and rock and roll. Before long, Dylan was plugging in and the Beatles were playing minor chords on acid. Then Jimi, James Brown and punk rock. Now we’re living in the golden age of hip-hop and indy music, a time when the average listener is expected to appreciate Jeff Buckley and Outkast, Bruce Springsteen and Charlie Parker, Gillian Welch and Kanye West. In other words, we’re requiring our cortex to memorize lots and lots of different musical patterns and that’s not an easy thing to do.