Song Lyrics and Standard English
According to a story in the NY Times, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh studied the 279 most popular songs from 2005 looking for references to drugs and alcohol.
I’d like to see a study that tracks the repetition rate of nonstandard English in popular music. The Pennsylvania study found that some genres mention drugs and alcohol more than others. From my own cursory and unscientific survey, I conclude that nonstandard English is well represented across genres. (My observations are based on lyrics from songs mentioned in lists like the Top 40. There may be some better ones somewhere.)
Song lyrics have more power to influence the language of young people now than they did in earlier generations.
When I was growing up, I listened to songs on the radio at home, not while I was at school or walking around town. I had a record player and a small collection of records. My total listening time probably didn’t amount to more than two or three hours a week.
Today’s adolescents spend an average of 16 hours a week listening to music. Nine out of ten in this age group have an MP3 player or a CD player in their rooms, and I’d guess that a great many younger children have them as well.
Most American high schools operate on a 36-week schedule. Class sessions vary in length from 45 to 55 minutes. At best, a student never absent will receive about four and a half hours of English instruction a week for 36 weeks of the year; compare that to 16 hours of music consumption a week every week of the year:
English instruction = 162 hours per year
Music listening = 832 hours per year
During those 832 hours, young music fans hear thousands upon thousands of repetitions of such constructions as:
I feel the magic between you and I. –Eric Carmen
When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl. – Justin Timberlake
Can we conversate? –Young Rant/Shorty B.
Can You handle me the way I are? –Timbaland
Far too many stars have fell on me. –Dan Fogelberg
As time goes by, you will get to know me a little more better. –Backstreet Boys
The way my body feel/When you’re laying right beside me. –Sevyn Streeter
Me and you are supose to be together. –Ashley Tisdale
A blogger at the music site Hooks & Harmony gives the crown for bad grammar to Beyoncé. Peter Lee’s article about “Get Me Bodied,” together with his translation of the song into standard English, is one of the funniest language laments I’ve ever read. The poor man gives it his best shot, but finally gives up: “I can’t finish this. I feel like I just translated the last half of Flowers for Algernon.”
No one expects popular song lyrics to be written in formal English. The golden oldies had their share of gonnas, wannas, ain’ts and double negatives. But none of the songs from the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s that I browsed while writing this post exhibit the vulgarity and verbal poverty of the lyrics of recent popular music. Efforts at school reform notwithstanding, the most competent English teachers in the world cannot compete with the steady indoctrination in vacuous and nonstandard English that goes on outside the classroom.
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