Why Does Pop Romanticize Dying Young?

Narcissism, the economy, and a fascination with gangster culture all play into the resurgence of "live fast, die young" themes in today's pop culture.
Swedish duo Icona Pop, known for the single "I Love It" (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Bieber with his swag, Miley with her tongue, Skrillex’s stupid haircut ... There are tons of reasons to tune out modern pop music that don’t have a thing to do with the music itself.

But if you do listen—really pay attention—you might find something in today’s pop that’s a lot more bothersome. There’s an apocalyptic, we’re-all-gonna-die-anyway theme that keeps popping up—a YOLO-style message to do whatever you want right now because tomorrow you might be in a box. 

Icona Pop’s song “I Love It” is an ode to crashing cars, throwing someone else’s stuff down the stairs and essentially doing whatever the hell they want, all the while proclaiming “I don't care, I love it." In “Die Young,” the always-prolific Ke$ha tells someone she just met to "make the most of the night like we're gonna die young." There’s Fun.'s "We Are Young," One Direction's "Live While We're Young," Rick Ross and Kanye West's "Live Fast, Die Young."

None of these people expect to actually drop dead tomorrow, I assume. But could this message be reflective of something bigger? And is the fact that songs like these resonate with so many young Americans kind of glitter-coated cry for help?

Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist and the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, says that music, alongside TV shows, movies and books, is always a product of what’s going on in a culture.

“[It’s] a way of seeing what our culture values,” she says. “I think cultural products are a really good way of capturing the zeitgeist, the spirit of the moment.”

Twenge has done some studies of her own on pop music. In a paper she co-authored, Twenge and her colleagues studied hit songs from 1980-2007 and found that pop lyrics have slowly started to be less communal, and more individualistic. There’s far less of that sweet “I Want To Hold Your Hand” vibe than there once was in pop music. That’s not to say it’s gone (remember “Call Me Maybe?”), but Twenge’s team observed a steady upswing of narcissistic themes and first-person singular pronouns—words like “I,” “me,” and “mine—in pop music.

“Changes in popular music lyrics mirror increases in narcissism over the past 27 years, with musical lyrics becoming increasingly self-focused over time,” they wrote.

“Everything in the ’80s was ‘love, love, we’re together,’” Twenge says over the phone. “It was sappy and insipid, but it was about togetherness.”

This shift is reflective of her studies and book, which find that young Americans  are increasingly extraverted and confident, albeit narcissistic. And so when pop music gets death-obsessed, it is reflecting those attitudes. “Narcissism is correlated with risk-taking,” Twenge says. “And we know that narcissism is higher in this generation than other ones.” So, she says, of course music with “me” themes would appeal to them, and messages of taking risks because you’re likely to be dead soon would resonate.

This isn’t to say the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” days of pop were dominated by church-going teetotalers unwilling to get a little crazy. Jim Morrison, who sung “Hello, I Love You,” was no stranger to the bottle. And even pop darlings such as Whitney Houston in the 1980s were struggling with pill addiction while they were singing of “we” and “you.”

But, if drug-use statistics are a gauge of generational recklessness, then young people certainly are reckless. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has seen a steady rise in illicit drug usage in people aged 18-20 over the past six years (particularly in Ecstasy use—a drug both Rihanna and Miley Cyrus reference in some of their most popular songs).

But John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, says youth recklessness and a dramatization of death has always had a place in pop. He points to the “splatter platters” of the 1950s and ’60s (songs like “Leader of the Pack” and “Tell Laura I Love Her”) and The Who’s “My Generation.”

“If you dig deep enough, not only just in rock culture, but in post World War II youth culture, you can find this kind of attitude of live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse,” he says. “That part of [pop music] is not new. The die-young, James Dean deal—that goes back to the ’50s.”

Covach says that in some ways, the Mod culture that The Who was writing about in “My Generation” had similar threads to today’s pop.  

“[The Mods] took amphetamines and danced all night and were very concerned about their appearance and the way they were viewed by others. ‘My Generation’ was kind of the theme song of the Mod movement and what made them feel like they were distant from their parents’ generation,” he says.

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Leah Sottile is a writer based in Spokane, Washington.

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