© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Size Matters: The Vocabularies Of Pop Musicians

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eminem is the greatest musical artist of all time - oh, please. But a new study that analyzed the lyrics of some best-selling musicians shows he does have the widest vocabulary. By comparison, Jay-Z is number two, Bob Dylan, number five, Kenny G, last. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more on the lyrical hierarchy.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Jay-Z...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROC BOYS")

JAY-Z: (Singing) Speech - first of all, I wanna thank my connect, the most important person with all due respect.

LIMBONG: Uses more words than Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Meanwhile, far away in another part of town...

LIMBONG: But does that mean Jay is better, Or that Katy Perry, ranked at number 41...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREWORK")

KATY PERRY: (Singing) 'Cause baby, you're a firework.

LIMBONG: Is a worst lyricist than the guys in Genesis, who are at number 26?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVISIBLE TOUCH")

GENESIS: (Singing) She seems to have an invisible touch. She reaches in and grabs right hold of your heart.

LIMBONG: The study took Wikipedia's list of best-selling musicians and compared the number of unique words among their 100 wordiest songs. It makes sense that wordy hip-hop pretty much runs the top. Tupac's at number three - Kanye West, one below him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IN THE WORLD")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) You're my questions. You're my proof. You're my stress, and you're my masseuse.

LIMBONG: And it also makes sense that the smooth jazz instrumentals of Kenny G rank low.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY G SONG)

LIMBONG: So is it a reflection of quality?

VARUN JEWALIKAR: (Laughter) Well, that's debatable.

LIMBONG: Varun Jewalikar created the list. He's a researcher engineer at Musixmatch. That's a lyrics website. And actually, he admits that it isn't fair to compare vocabulary with quality.

JEWALIKAR: This guy's the greatest or that guy is bad because he uses less words, I don't know. It doesn't make any sense to me.

LIMBONG: What we can glean from this list, though, is that going by sales, which like really simple lyrics, big-selling artists like Taylor Swift and Elvis Presley both rank average. Even The Beatles sit at a low 76.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY YOU'RE A RICH MAN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Baby, you're a rich man. Baby, you're a rich man. Baby, you're a rich man.

LIMBONG: Obviously, we're not talking about melody. We're also not talking about Bruce Springsteen, The Doors or The Beach Boys. The site didn't have the rights to use their lyrics or some other artists - a couple grains of salt, right? But for fans, it's an amusing look at one aspect of music. And for struggling songwriters out there, the message is if you want to make it big, don't overthink it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing) Rock and roll is just rock and roll.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.