According to an ancient Greek myth, Narcissus, a personification of vanity, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He was so infatuated, in fact, that he was unable to stop gazing upon it, ultimately leading to his death. Today, front-facing iPhone cameras and Instagram accounts act as our pools of water as we grow closer to Narcissus’ fate.
Previously, only the wealthy had the luxury to cultivate their sense of narcissism through commissions of portraits, social connections, and an exclusive education. By 2013 however, the concept of documenting one’s own image was so widespread that Oxford University Press chose “selfie” as the word of the year. Now, through the virtually unlimited use of digital cameras, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and the Internet revolution, permitting the free flow of knowledge, all the luxuries of the rich are accessible to the rest. In 2013, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 78% of teens possess a cell phone, and 47% of those teens use a smartphone. The rise in smartphone usage not only allows for a much greater scope of communication and access to the Internet, but also increases exposure to social media. There is a Russian word, vranyo, which signifies a mutual lying, where both parties realize and condone the falsehood. Our social media lives are a type of vranyo: we know that we portray an exaggeration of the truth in order to gain popularity, and we realize that others are using the same strategy, yet we continue to perpetuate the lies. I cannot count the number of times I have heard, “He is way cuter in his profile picture” or “I barely recognized a girl that I’m following on Instagram in person.” Through our tweets, texts, and photos, we try to render ourselves wittier and prettier. And, as we construct our perfect online lives in vranyo fashion, we start to believe it, exponentially increasing our admiration for ourselves. So much so that it borders on narcissism.
A study extending the span of several decades has shown, through questionnaires called the Narcissism Personality Inventory, that the level of narcissism among college students is significantly increasing. As evidence for this cultural shift, one needs only to tune their radio to the Top 40 station. There exists a sort of shameless exaltation of the self in lyrics like “I’m the man (x3), yes I am (x3)” or “I’m so fancy, you already know.” And a certain disregard for others in lyrics like “been around the world, don’t speak the language, but your booty don’t need explaining,” where Derulo is singing about his carnal lust for a woman with whom he has nothing in common. In addition, teenage invincibility, which has now existed as a social identity for decades, is cultivated through lyrics like “turned down for what,” showing a casual use of mind-altering substances and a nonchalance towards risky behavior.
Of course, there still exist several popular songs like “All of Me” that portray pure and selfless love. And, narcissism in music does not necessarily signify immorality. The song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, for example, although it emphasizes the listener’s state of mind, is not self-centered or hostile. Some songs even show how being slightly narcissistic, by placing importance upon your needs, is beneficial: Rixton laments that “all I need is a little love in my life,” and Ariana Grande realizes she has “one less problem without you.” However, despite the value and appeal of self-interest, a statistically significant correlation exists between narcissism and anger in popular music. Analyzing lyrics from the early 80s to present, Dr. DeWall, a psychologist, discovered that the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently than “we” and “us”, and that the former are becoming increasingly associated with anger-related words.
So what do a bunch of filthy rich and frankly, overrated celebrities, singing about their fame have to do with our societal perspective? Well, the fact remains that these celebrities, although scorned by the public and press, produce music that has a certain appeal to us, or else they wouldn’t be so incredibly wealthy. And this appeal lies in their intense narcissism, that, although unattainable and not completely desirable, we attempt to emulate. Although we mock shows like the Bachelor or I Wanna Marry Harry, where the contestants desperately try to attain fame by winning love, we, as a culture, live vicariously through our music, straining ourselves to fathom the musician’s fame. Even as we indifferently bob our heads and move our lips to the lyrics of a narcissistic tune like “Fancy,” gradually, we subconsciously start to believe the words: it’s okay to enjoy winning, it’s okay to perceive yourself as better than others, it’s okay to love your material wealth and vast power.
This is all good and well, until the realization hits that not all of us can be as wealthy as Kanye or as talented as Beyoncé. Setting aside the direct negatives of narcissism, creating a society of narcissists is truly impossible. By internalizing the message presented in mainstream music and intensely focusing on our media images, we set ourselves up for failure. As standards of beauty, humor, wealth, and intelligence are elevated, from different sources to impossible heights, we, rather than look away from our image, gaze even more intently upon it. This hyperconsciousness of self-image leads to an increased focus on the improvement and maintenance of this image rather than on the cultivation of the true self. And, this cultivation is essential in preventing our individual demise. Unlike Narcissus who could not look away from his reflection due to his admiration, we refuse to look away for fear of inadequacy. Thus, it is our narcissism, perpetuating a warped perception of self-image, that ultimately dooms us.
Rainie, Lee. “Cell Phone Ownership Hits 91% of Adults.” Pew Research Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 6 June 2013. Web. 29 June 2014.
Tierney, John. “A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 02 July 2014.
But, I wondered, what check my gathering would make someone think it’s ok to post their home address or phone number on facebook at all, let alone as a status update.