Country Music & Hip Hop Make You Stupid

Radiohead can make you smart … maybe.

Warning: Fans of Lil Wayne, Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Fall Out Boy might want to go read a comic book rather than attempting to comprehend this column.
Admirers of Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, The Clash, Sex Pistols and Radiohead, meanwhile, should get ready to post this for all their friends on Facebook (in between writing witty treatises for literary magazines) and make copies to distribute at their next Mensa meeting.

That’s because the smartest people — based on an unscientific-but-clever study, listen to the likes of Beethoven, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Frank Sinatra and The Cult while the, uh, less-smart fill their iPods (if they can figure out how to do that) with Jay-Z, Aerosmith, Nickelback, The Used and Garth Brooks.

Hey, I didn’t come up with this evaluation, but it’s good for some interesting reading and a snicker or two.

The “music that makes you dumb” analysis comes from California Institute of Technologies grad student Virgil Griffith, spotlighted in the New York Times and other lofty publications for being a “disruptive technologist,” aka, a computer researcher/Internet security guru.

Anyway, this uber-popular geek (who’s also conducted a “books that make you dumb” study) has compared favorite bands of students at 1,352 colleges — based on Facebook listings — with average SAT test scores to come up with a chart that displays where artists fall on the smart to not-so-smart spectrum.

The results are eyebrow-raising, to say the least. Listeners of country and hip-hop artists mostly rank in the bottom half of SAT scores. Classic rock straddles both sides: Aerosmith, The Doors and Elton John on the low end, with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Queen and Pink Floyd on the keen side.

Beethoven, inventive singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, rock’s Counting Crows and alt-rock/indie-pop’s Guster topped the list for listeners with SAT scores above 1,200 or so. Lil Wayne’s fans were at the bottom, falling way below 900.)

What’s not so clear: Does certain music destroy brain cells or just muck up a student’s test-taking abilities? Do those who aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer just listen to dumb music? Why does beat-driven stuff end up mostly on one side of the ledger and lyric-driven stuff mostly on the other? And why are dolts such as ABBA, Marilyn Manson and Britney Spears missing from the chart?

Either way, this certainly can’t please diehard backers of pop singer Josh Groban and rapper Ludacris, who both fall on the duller-witted side of the ledger but who would never otherwise come anywhere close to one another. Maybe they can pair up to start an online school for fans to improve test scores.

On his Web site, Griffith noted there are even complaints about “intelligent” groups: “I don’t want to be smart if I have to listen to Counting Crows,” his roommate groused.

In an effort to corroborate Griffith’s findings, I decided to check with a few pointy-headed local musicians. Because most couldn’t recall their SAT scores, just trust me that these folks are fairly bright, even if their memories aren’t so hot.

• Calvin College professor Chris Smit, of the band The New Midwest, listed Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, My Morning Jacket, R.E.M., Lucinda Williams and Arcade Fire among his favorite artists, so I wonder if he peeked at my list.

• Studio owner/Troll for Trout frontman Michael Crittenden, who’s certainly brilliant in spinning recording dials, listed Sting, James Taylor, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Prefab Sprout and Steely Dan, who mostly get the thumbs up from this music snob.

• Insightful singer-songwriter Seth Thompson, who didn’t take the SAT but bombed the ACT, favored The Decemberists, Tom Waits, Led Zeppelin and Jack White’s The White Stripes and Raconteurs, which means this is one intelligent fellow who I’d rather join for a beer than a standardized test.

• Grand Rapids Symphony percussionist Bill Vits admires drummer Buddy Rich, theremin player Clara Rockmore, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, rocker Frank Zappa and local composer Ale Miller, which means I’ll definitely hang out with him even if I might have trouble dancing to the music at his next party.

Ultimately, how dumb or smart a band might be really depends on individual tastes and moods, so let’s respect, not mock, the choices of our fellow music lovers. Unless, of course, they spend all their time listening to Justin Timberlake and Bon Jovi.


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