Scholars' Association News
Issue 37
February 2016


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Narcissism in Music: from the virtuosos of the past to the contemporary music industry
By George Athanassopoulos

In a 2011 article which appeared on PsyNET (American Psychological Association) DeWall, Pond, Campbell & Twengei, found a statistically significant rise in narcissistic tendencies in music by analysing lyrics of popular songs from the 1980-2007 era. More specifically, they noted that words such as I and me were gradually replacing words such as we and us. This trend cannot escape notice from today's audiences, particularly in the pop musical genre. Some examples: My Humps from the Black Eyed Peas (Interscope Records, 2005), SexyBack by Justin Timberlake (FutureSex/LoveSounds, 2006), Can't Tell Me Nothing by Kanye West (Rock-a-Fella Records LLC, 2007), Milkshake by Kelis (EMI Music, 2009), Flawless by Beyoncé (Parkwood-Columbia, 2013), among many others. The researchers believe that some of the above songs, and many others, are infused with words relevant with self-projection and anti-social behaviour, while phrases linked with positive social interactions and emotions are in recession. The research team noted that these findings contain new evidence regarding how changes in any social environment may become a point of focus in order to comprehend cultural change and psychological processes, such as narcissistic projections of our own self.

The reason behind the narcissistic self-projection in the realm of music may be defined by two elements: a) how individual artists view and promote themselves, and b) to what level they permit other people (production team, stylists, fashion/trend-setters) influence their image. The first parameter is dependent on where an individual places weight when creating her/his self-image: on internal or external viewpoints (internal vs external locus of control)ii. According to Wiener (1976), people, including artists, classify the parameters of their success into internal (hard work and talent) and external (degree of difficulty of the pursued outcome, and luck, which may also go together with criticism). The first of each (hard work and degree of difficulty) are controlled by themselves, while the second (talent and luck/criticism) are not. A narcissist, instilled with feelings of being special, important and successful, believes that the non-controlled factors (talent and luck) are more important for success. Since, as a narcissus, s/he believes that s/he is already talented, in a scenario where success is not met the fault lies in the non-controlled external parameters; s/he would not admit that s/he is not hard-working, or that the degree of difficulty was beyond his/her ability.

As for the second element concerning the effects of the influence of others on a musician's narcissistic personality, the consumer-based music industry of the 21st century does not present to audiences merely a singer/band, but a brand name-product. This “product”, and everything about and around it, may be void of talent, hard work, degree of difficulty, and even criticism, which may be bought or covered under heavy advertising; the weight is placed on increasing the commercial value of the artist/band and their support team. Artists, particularly those belonging to the pop musical genre, promote the image that their public relations team believes would be most profitable. If, at any time and age, narcissistic images of singers/bands are perceived to be at the forefront of the artistic world, this phenomenon could be related to the society which chooses to consume these narcissists.

Narcissism in the realm of music, however, should not be seen as a phenomenon only perceived today, since, as a means of projection, it touches everyone who has been linked with the music industry in some form or another. The roots of narcissism in western-art music could be placed around the 12th century, when church musicians turned sacred chants into a polyphonic art form, seeking not only to praise God but also to find a way to highlight their own skill and musical talent. This, gradually, gave social recognition and led to the rise of the virtuoso (=master of an art). The initial meaning was a term for any person who achieved phenomenal skills in any spiritual of artistic sector. Later on, the term was used to describe musicians with extraordinary technical skills. In an age where most of the artists were the managers and promoters of their own career, virtuosi reached their prime in the 18th and the 19th century in the form of the composer genius, the singer, and the soloist, usually for the piano or the violin. Narcissists, who “by default” possessed “boundless” amounts of talent and believed that all internal parameters (talent and hard work) were equal, considered that the only external parameter that might assist their rise or prove to be their downfall were critics and criticism, and further considered that they rightfully deserve special treatment by those around them.

For example, Francesca Cuzzoni (1696 –1778) was one of the most revered sopranos of the baroque era. In 1723 she came to England in order to perform Teofane in G.F. Handel’s opera Ottone at the King's Theatre of London. However, the part had been composed for another performer, Maddalena Salvai, and Cuzzoni, as a true diva of her age, refused to sing the aria entitled “Falsa imagine”, telling Handel that she needed “a fresh air”. The composer, not being able to tolerate the singer’s behavior any longer, responded as such: "Oh! Madame, I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I hereby give you notice that I am Beelzebub, the chief of devils." Supposedly, he then lifted her up by the waist and swore to throw her out of the window if she continued talking.iii

However, it is possible for musicians to exhibit narcissistic symptoms later on in life when their talent/image/brand name, crafted by themselves or promoted by their public relations team, has achieved recognition from the external environment and acts as a powerful boost of their social dimension in such a degree, that artists have illogical expectations, seeking special treatment because they consider themselves special.iv Any non-conformation is considered to be an attack to their superiority, and those who doubt a narcissist’s skills or her/his capabilities (critics, other musicians) is viewed as an enemy and may find themselves on the receiving end of a narcissistic rage attack.v A recent example of a self-crafted image comes from one of the arguably most talented guitarists of heavy metal music, Yngwie Malmsteen. In his autobiography, Malmsteen paints a picture of himself as a case study of an artist with a narcissistic personality disorder, unable to receive any criticism or negative In the popular music domain, the Justin Bieber phenomenon did not craft his image alone, but had the support of the biggest trend setters of the popular music industry.vii

Therefore, a distinction is deemed necessary: according to a study by Furnham, Hughes, & Marshall (2013),viii people with narcissistic tendencies are very likely to involve themselves with creative activities and the arts anyway. This would mean that musicians’ skills are not lessened if they are narcissists or not, all the more so if there is an audience ready to idolize them, as in the cases of Malmsteen and Cuzzoni. Together with these two, it is possible to add composers and musicians from nearly all musical genres: Niccolò Paganini, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Vladimir de Pachmann, Maria Callas, Steve Vai, Freddie Mercury, Christopher George Latore Wallace (also known as The Notorious B.I.G.) amongst many more from an impressively long list. A narcissus who picks music for his self-projection is not a carbon copy of a musician who gradually becomes a narcissus or is turned into one by their production team. As it is highly debatable whether there is any credibility in any form of quantifiable testing method of telling the two apart, an empirical method could be adopted in an attempt to see which musicians are truly great, regardless of their being narcissists or not, based on three key parameters: i) their response to the afore mentioned external non-controllable parameter of luck and criticism, ii) whether they possess the ability to be self-sarcastic, and iii) if have the ability to recognize greatness and skill in others. Here are a few examples for each of these points:

a) Response to criticism: while Beethoven’s music often received harsh criticism during the composer’s lifetime,ix he himself was able to handle it in a very professional manner. He wrote to J.P. Salomon in London in 1815, that one of his former students, Ries, told him that Cramer had spoken to the public against his [Beethoven’s] compositions “for no other reason, I hope, than to promote the art of music. As for that, I have no objections.” When the editors of Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote against his 3rd Symphony, Beethoven, in his response, did not forget to send his greetings to the chief editor, Herr von Rochlitz, by saying that he is aware that Herr Rochlitz has written some exquisite articles, and that, if he ever went to Leipzig, he is sure that they would become very good friends.x

b) Ability of self-sarcasm: Keri Hilson’s Pretty Girl Rock (Mosley Music/Interscope Records, 2010), with lyrics “All eyes on me when I walk in, no question that this girl's a 10, don’t hate me cause I'm beautiful”, Nikki Minaj’ discography (2010-, with mostly explicit lyrics), and Gentleman by PSY (YG-SchoolBoy-Republic, 2013) with lyrics “Hey there, if I’m going to introduce myself, I’m a cool guy with courage, spirit and craziness”, could be considered self-sarcastic as easily as they could be seen as narcissistic. At the same time, from the realm of western art music, when an orchestra was not performing a passage of Richard Strauss’ music as he intended, he chided them gently by saying: “No, I know what I want, and I know what I meant when I wrote this. After all, I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!”xi Further, when Beethoven heard the daughter of one of his friends perform his 32 variations on a theme in C minor, he asked: “Whose is that?” “It’s yours.” “Mine? This piece of folly mine? Oh Beethoven, what an ass you were those days!”xii

c) Ability to recognize greatness in others: when Rossini, one of the most commercially successful composers of his time, was asked who the greatest musician was in a conversation with his friends, he replied without hesitation: “Beethoven”. “But what about Mozart?” “Oh, Mozart is not the greatest,” Rossini responded, “He is the only”.xiii Similar to this, from the realm of Jazz music, when Art Tatum visited the club where the famous stride pianist Fats Weller was performing, the latter announced to his audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house”.xiv Amongst Tatum’s fans were Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Godowsky, Oistrakh and Gershwin.xv From the realm of popular music, Michael Jackson, who was considered to be a narcissist himself by many of his pundits, was the one who handed the ΒΕΤ Lifetime Achievement Award to James Brown in 2003. While doing so, with tears in his eyes, he said: “What is a genius? One whose inspiration demands change…[…]…nobody has influenced me more than this man right here…[…]… since I was a child at 6 years old, he was the one I looked up to more [than] any other entertainer, and I still do today”.xvi

After these examples, whether they belong to the realm of fiction or they are meticulously recorded events, it is observable that narcissism in music as a social and cultural phenomenon did not appear in our times. It has been there for a long time, it is here now, and it will continue to thrive in the future in all genres of music, since society itself choses to “consume” narcissists, giving rise to phenomena such as Lisztomania” and the army of “Beliebers”. If there is a rise in the consumption of songs with narcissistic lyrics, as noted earlier by DeWall, Pond, Campbell & Twenge, then this is because the narcissistic personality disorder syndrome is on the rise in the population total since 1980, predominantly among the younger generation.xvii Any person who has crafted a narcissistic image of themselves on their own, or is the result of active promotion by their public relations team, s/he will find the means to share their “greatness” with the rest of the world, or, in the consumer-based musical industry of today, it will be enforced to us through continuous projection. At any rate, we can either enjoy the music, or change the radio station (while it is still legal to do so!). Paraphrasing Sir Ernest Newman, one of the most acclaimed British musicologists of the 20th century, we can say that a good musician, narcissist or not, is revealed, while a bad musician is found out.xviii

iDeWall, C. N., Pond Jr, R. S., Campbell, W. K., & Twenge, J. M. (2011). Tuning in to psychological change: Linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions over time in popular US song lyrics. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5(3), 200.
iiWeiner, B. (Ed.). (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. General Learning Press.
iiiMainwaring, J. (1760). Memoirs of the Life of the late George Frederic Handel.
ivYoung, M. S., & Pinsky, D. (2006). Narcissism and celebrity. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 463–471.
vΓια την ναρκισσιστική οργή δείτε Horowitz, M. J., & Arthur, R. J. (1988). Narcissistic rage in leaders: The intersection of individual dynamics and group process. International journal of social psychiatry, 34(2), 135-141, όπως και Kohut, H. (1972). Thoughts on narcissism and narcissistic rage. The psychoanalytic study of the child.
viMalmsteen, Y. J. (2013). Relentless: A Memoir. Turner Publishing Company, United States.
viiHalperin, S. (2011). Justin Bieber Cover: The Team and Strategy Behind Making Him a Star. Ανακτήθηκε από τη διεύθυνση
viiiFurnham, A., Hughes, D. J., & Marshall, E. (2013). Creativity, OCD, narcissism and the Big Five. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 10, 91-98.
ixSenner, W. M., Wallace, R., & Meredith, W. R. (Eds.). (2001). The Critical Reception of Beethoven's Compositions by His German Contemporaries, Volume 2 (Vol. 2). U of Nebraska Press.
xKahn, R. S. (2010). Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge: Music, Meaning, and Beethoven's Most Difficult Work. Scarecrow Press.
xiDel Mar, N. (1962). Richard Strauss. Barrie and Rockliff.
xiiForbes, E. (1967). Thayer's life of Beethoven. Princeton University Press.
xiiiKelly, H., & Foley, J. (1998). Classic Fm Musical Anecdotes. Hodder & Stoughton.
xivKirkeby, E. (1975). Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Story of Fats Weller. Da Capo Press; Facsimile Ed edition.
xvLester, J. (1994) Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, Oxford University Press.
xviKennedy, J. (2015). #TBT: Watch Michael Jackson get Emo while honouring James Brown at the 2003 BET awards. Ανακτήθηκε από τη διεύθυνση
xviiTwenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. Simon and Schuster.
xviiiWatson, D. (1991). The Wordsworth dictionary of musical quotations. Wordsworth Edition.

George Athanassopoulos is a post-doctorate researcher at the Department of Music Studies of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Ph.D. in Music Psychology University of Edinburgh

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