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Smarter Than You: Songs about Intelligence
September 2, 2011
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Does being a musician mean skipping out on a formal education? Not at all - as this list from Spinner points out, there are plenty of rockers, knob-twiddlers and folk singers who made it all the way to a Ph. D. without stopping the music.

The list got us thinking about how intelligence is represented in song. There are lots of tunes out there on the subject of smarts, with songwriters weighing in from all perspectives. And some of them are gloriously stupid.

Pulp - 'Mis-Shapes'
Jarvis Cocker has never been afraid to point out the difference between intelligent people (who, in his opinion, are often disenfranchised and marginalized), and the successful but vapid individuals who run the world. It's basically nerds vs. jocks, and 'Mis-Shapes' is a stirring call to arms for anyone who's ever been shoved into a locker with only a book of philosophy for company.

Mos Def and Pharaoahe Monch feat. Nate Dogg - 'Oh No'
There's a rich tradition of battling in hip hop, with MCs pointing out how much richer, better-dressed, and more successful they are than their opponent. Another line of attack? Pointing out that you're the smartest person in the room. As Mos Def puts it on this classic from 2000, he's "harder than y'all cause I'm smarter than y'all. / I know that deep down it's got to be botherin' y'all..." 

Harvey Danger - 'Flagpole Sitta'
The nineties were a good decade for musicians who sneered at people they saw as less intelligent than themselves. And as one YouTube commenter put it, 'Flagpole Sitta' is "the nineties, boiled down to 3 minutes, 53 seconds." Arguably the song's most memorable line: "Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding." 

The Undertones - 'Smarter Than You'
This tune from 1978's Teenage Kicks EP is pretty self-explanatory: the singer claims, repeatedly, that he's "smarter than you," with "you" in this case being a girl from New York who he nevertheless would like to spend some quality time with. Of course, it's hard to say how smart the speaker really is when he claims "I'm a human calculator / Five and five and five is ten." Our non-human calculator came up with a different answer.

Ian Dury and the Blockheads - 'There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards'
Of course, not all musicians who write about intelligence make claims for their own superiority in that regard. This one from Ian Dury and the Blockheads is a pleasant reminder that there are still some people out there who are too busy being impressed with the genius of the masters - "Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers ... he didn't do the Mona Lisa / That was an Italian geezer" - to worry about how they rate on the intelligence scale. 

Bob Dylan - 'My Back Pages'
The chorus of this Dylan tune says it all: "Ah, but I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now." It's a song about the powerful certainty of youth, when we all know what the world is, how it's broken, and what must be done to fix it. The young know they're smarter than everyone else. As we grow up, we discover that true intelligence often starts with admitting that we know nothing. 


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