Pediatric Annals

Rock Music and Music Videos

Victor C Strasburger, MD; Robert L Hendren, DO

Abstract

I'm glad this boy never read Shakespeare in school, because he would have shot himself years earlier.

- Singer Ozzy Osbourne's wife, commenting on the lawsuit brought by the parents of a 19-year-old male who committed suicide after listening to Osbourne's song, "Suicide Solution" [Albuquerque Journal, December 3, 1985].

It's not enough to say that Shakespeare and Marlowe were violent and civilization still survived. Technobgy has brought a new amplification effect into play. Never before has so much violence been shown so graphically to so many.

- J. Morgenstern [Newsweek, February 14, 1972]

When Little Richard sang, "Good golly, Miss Molly/Sure likes to bawl/When you're rockin' and rollin'/You can't hear your mama call!" in 1959, he was not singing about a young woman with hay fever and middle ear problems. Nor could the lyrics to the most famous ambiguous rock song ever recorded - "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen - ever be deciphered, even when the record was played speeded up, slowed down, and backwards. Finally, the Federal Communications Commission decided in 1962 that it was "unintelligible at any speed."1,2

Rock music and lyrics has always been controversial and problematic to adult society, but concern about its potential negative impact has increased recently. People concerned about the health of adolescents worry that music and media themes of alienation, violence, substance abuse, and sex are contributing to a perceived deterioration in the development and identity formation of young people. There is no question that lyrics have become more provocative and explicit during the past two decades.3,4 On the other hand, to a certain extent, rock 'n' roll must be provocative, antiestablishment, and disliked by adults. Rock music is an important badge of identity for adolescents and an important activity for them. The question is, what behavioral impact - if any - does rock music have on teenagers? Is it simply one of the distinguishing characteristics of adolescence, or does it incite teenagers to riot?

ROCK 'N' ROLL MUSIC

Definition of Terms

The terms "rock music" and "popular music" include such categories as hard rock, soft rock, punk rock, grunge, heavy metal, rap, salsa, and soul music. Different types of music are popular with different racial and ethnic groups, although there is considerable crossover (Table 1). Teenagers' choice in music helps them to define important social and subcultural boundaries.5

Heavy metal and rap music have elicited the greatest concern. Once considered as only a fringe category of rock music, heavy metal is characterized by the loud, pulsating rhythm of electric bass guitar and drums, and the seeming obsession with themes of violence, dominance and abuse of women, hate, the occult, Satanism, and death.6 Groups such as Metallica, Black Sabbath, Megadeath, Slayer, and AC/DC have become increasingly popular. In 1989, the group Guns-N-Roses reported a 2-year income of more than $20 million (Atlanta Journal, October 7, 1990:A3). Some parents and parent groups have advocated censorship, but clearly that is neither an acceptable nor a legal solution.4·7 In October 1992 the US Supreme Court let stand lower court rulings that declared that heavy metal rock star Ozzy Osbourne 's free speech rights protected him against lawsuits brought by the parents of two teenagers in Georgia and South Carolina who had committed suicide after listening to his song, "Suicide Solution" (Albuquerque Journal, July 16, 1990:C12).

Rap music has its roots in black culture and is characterized by talking to a musical beat. At times, it is angry and violent (eg, gangsta rap). Several rappers, including Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, have had well-publicized encounters with the law. One notable song by rapper Ice-T is…

I'm glad this boy never read Shakespeare in school, because he would have shot himself years earlier.

- Singer Ozzy Osbourne's wife, commenting on the lawsuit brought by the parents of a 19-year-old male who committed suicide after listening to Osbourne's song, "Suicide Solution" [Albuquerque Journal, December 3, 1985].

It's not enough to say that Shakespeare and Marlowe were violent and civilization still survived. Technobgy has brought a new amplification effect into play. Never before has so much violence been shown so graphically to so many.

- J. Morgenstern [Newsweek, February 14, 1972]

When Little Richard sang, "Good golly, Miss Molly/Sure likes to bawl/When you're rockin' and rollin'/You can't hear your mama call!" in 1959, he was not singing about a young woman with hay fever and middle ear problems. Nor could the lyrics to the most famous ambiguous rock song ever recorded - "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen - ever be deciphered, even when the record was played speeded up, slowed down, and backwards. Finally, the Federal Communications Commission decided in 1962 that it was "unintelligible at any speed."1,2

Rock music and lyrics has always been controversial and problematic to adult society, but concern about its potential negative impact has increased recently. People concerned about the health of adolescents worry that music and media themes of alienation, violence, substance abuse, and sex are contributing to a perceived deterioration in the development and identity formation of young people. There is no question that lyrics have become more provocative and explicit during the past two decades.3,4 On the other hand, to a certain extent, rock 'n' roll must be provocative, antiestablishment, and disliked by adults. Rock music is an important badge of identity for adolescents and an important activity for them. The question is, what behavioral impact - if any - does rock music have on teenagers? Is it simply one of the distinguishing characteristics of adolescence, or does it incite teenagers to riot?

ROCK 'N' ROLL MUSIC

Definition of Terms

The terms "rock music" and "popular music" include such categories as hard rock, soft rock, punk rock, grunge, heavy metal, rap, salsa, and soul music. Different types of music are popular with different racial and ethnic groups, although there is considerable crossover (Table 1). Teenagers' choice in music helps them to define important social and subcultural boundaries.5

Heavy metal and rap music have elicited the greatest concern. Once considered as only a fringe category of rock music, heavy metal is characterized by the loud, pulsating rhythm of electric bass guitar and drums, and the seeming obsession with themes of violence, dominance and abuse of women, hate, the occult, Satanism, and death.6 Groups such as Metallica, Black Sabbath, Megadeath, Slayer, and AC/DC have become increasingly popular. In 1989, the group Guns-N-Roses reported a 2-year income of more than $20 million (Atlanta Journal, October 7, 1990:A3). Some parents and parent groups have advocated censorship, but clearly that is neither an acceptable nor a legal solution.4·7 In October 1992 the US Supreme Court let stand lower court rulings that declared that heavy metal rock star Ozzy Osbourne 's free speech rights protected him against lawsuits brought by the parents of two teenagers in Georgia and South Carolina who had committed suicide after listening to his song, "Suicide Solution" (Albuquerque Journal, July 16, 1990:C12).

Rap music has its roots in black culture and is characterized by talking to a musical beat. At times, it is angry and violent (eg, gangsta rap). Several rappers, including Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, have had well-publicized encounters with the law. One notable song by rapper Ice-T is entitled "Cop Killer" and contains the lyrics, "I'm 'bout to bust some shots off/I'm 'bout to dust some cops off and contains a chant of "Die, Die, Die, Pig, Die!" Police organizations from around the country demanded the recall of the recording (Newsweek, June 29, 1992:46-52). Although Warner Brothers Records refused, Ice-T asked that the track be removed from all future productions of the album. Rap music is not unidimensional, however. At times, it can also be prosocial, embracing such traditional social values as nurturing, education, and self-sufficiency (Newsweek, June 29, 1992:46-52). No other music style has so many antidrug songs (The New York Times , June 1 7, 1990: 19).

Consumption

During mid to late adolescence, as television viewing begins to wane, listening to rock music increases. In one large survey of 14 to 16 year olds in 10 different urban Southeast centers, listening to music averaged 40 hours per week.8 Often, music is used as a background accompaniment to doing homework, driving, or talking with friends. There is no evidence that music media exert a displacement effect on other activities such as schoolwork,5 although there are several suggestive studies that teens who spend more time listening to music tend to not do as well academically9,10 and that students who study while listening to rock music exhibit lower comprehension of the material than students studying in silence or listening to classical music.11

Why Adolescents Like Rock Music

The uses (and possibly, the abuses) of popular music are myriad. Main categories might include:

* relaxation and mood regulation,

* social (partying, talking with friends, and playing),

* silence-filling (background noise or relief from boredom), and

* expressive (identification with a particular sound, lyrics, or musical group).

When teenagers are asked about the appeal of rock music, they respond that they are most interested in "the beat," not the lyrics. Yet even if lyric content remains unimportant to them on a conscious level, this does not exonerate provocative lyrics or negate the possibility that teens can learn from them.

Music plays an important role in the socialization of adolescents. It can help them identify with a peer group12 or serve as an important symbol of antiestablishment rebellion.13 The performers of popular music also have a significant role in adolescent development as potential role models. With adolescent consumers estimated to have $73 billion worth of purchasing power (The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 1990), mainstream advertising is now saturated with rock 'n' roll music.

On the other hand, most rock 'n' roll - aside from heavy metal and gangster rap - is surprisingly mainstream in its value orientation.5 Romantic love is still the most prevalent theme, despite the fact that the lyrics have become more explicit and the treatment of love is less romantic and more physical.3

Adolescents' Comprehension of Song Lyrics

If there is "good" news about the increasingly explicit lyrics of popular music, it is that many teenagers do not know the lyrics or comprehend their intended meaning. For example, in one study, only 30% of teenagers knew their lyrics to their favorite songs.14 When students of varying ages were tested for comprehension of two immensely popular songs, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin," their knowledge varied greatly. For example, only 10% of fourth graders could correctly interpret the Madonna song, none could correctly interpret the Springsteen song, and nearly 50% of college students thought that "Born in the USA" was a song of patriotism, not alienation.14 Other studies have found similarly low rates of lyric knowledge and comprehension that tends to be age-dependent.1517 Interestingly, whereas adults frequently identify such themes as sex, drugs, violence, and Satanism in current rock music, teenagers tend to interpret their favorite songs as being about "love, friendship, growing up, life's struggles, having fun, cars, religion, and other topics that relate to teenage life."17

Table

TABLE 1Teenagers' Tastes in Modern Music*!

TABLE 1

Teenagers' Tastes in Modern Music*!

Behavioral Impact of Lyrics

To date, there are no studies that document a cause-and-effect relationship between sexy or violent lyrics and adverse behavioral effects.4,7 There are, however, three studies that indicate that a preference for heavy metal music may be a significant marker for alienation, substance abuse, psychiatric disorders, or risk-taking behaviors during adolescence.8,18'20 In one survey of 14 to 16 year olds, white male adolescents who reported engaging in five or more risk-taking behaviors (eg, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, cheating in school, having sex, cutting school, stealing money, and smoking marijuana) were most likely to name a heavy metal group as their favorite.8 Until a longitudinal correlational study is performed, it is equally possible that alienation leads to a preference for heavy metal music rather than the reverse. Asking teenagers about their musical preferences could at least represent a useful screening tool for primary care physicians and mental health professionals.20'22

MUSIC VIDEOS AND MUSIC TELEVISION

As a visual medium, music videos are compelling. Not only do they possess the impact of ordinary television, but they also can be even more powerful. They represent a unique form of broadcast media; impressionistic, nonlinear, and one that is immensely popular with teenagers and preteenagers.5 Again, although no cause-and-effect studies exist, rock music videos seem capable of influencing teenagers' ideas about adult behavior and, potentially, even modifying their own behavior. There is concern that the power of the music and lyrics becomes magnified when visual images are added to them, increasing the risk of deleterious effects on young people.7 Such concern seems justified, given that numerous studies have suggested television's potential harmful effects in the areas of violence and aggressive behavior, the influence of advertising on adolescents' smoking and drinking behavior, and a link between sexually suggestive programming and distorted views of human sexuality.22'24

Table

TABLE 2Teenagers' Reactions to the Madonna Song "Papa Don't Preach" by Race and Sex*

TABLE 2

Teenagers' Reactions to the Madonna Song "Papa Don't Preach" by Race and Sex*

Figure. Label attached voluntarily by record companies to potentially questionable albums, tapes, and compact discs.

Figure. Label attached voluntarily by record companies to potentially questionable albums, tapes, and compact discs.

Music television comprises performance videos, concept videos, and advertising. In a performance video, a musical performer or group sings the song in concert or in a studio. A concept video consists of a story that goes along with the song, which may or may not add a plot to the lyrics. Although performance videos occasionally are outlandish (eg, David Lee Roth's attire or his masturbating on-stage with a huge inflatable phallus in the video "Yankee Rose"), there is no evidence that such videos have demonstrable behavioral impact.4 Such depictions are roughly the equivalent of Elvis Presley gyrating his hips in the 1950s. Rather, it is the concept videos that have attracted much of the criticism for promoting violence, sexual promiscuity, and sexism.

Consumption

Music video has become a pervasive and influential form of consumer culture and has altered the television viewing, music listening, and record buying habits of the young people who constitute its audience.25 With 70% of American households receiving cable TV,26 most teenagers have access to music television and may spend as many as 2 hours a day watching it,27 although most studies report closer to 30 to 60 minutes per day.5 Music television grows by more than 5 million households a year and is now available in 55 million American homes and in 40 countries overseas (TV Guide, August 3, 1991:4-8). As a commercial medium, its profits are projected to be nearly $100 million. The effects of music television's advertising content are considerable.28

Content. Content analyses reveal that concept videos are rife with sexual and violent imagery.29,30 In one analysis, more than 50% of the videos contained violence, and nearly 75% contained sexual imagery; often, the two were combined into violence against women.29 In a separate analysis, more than half of the videos portrayed women in a condescending manner.31 A more recent content analysis of 100 videos on music television found that women often are portrayed as "bimbos" (New York Doily News, September 24, 1993). At a time when an estimated 25% of American college women report having been raped or sexually assaulted,32 such imagery seems unwise and unhealthy, even if direct behavioral consequences cannot be demonstrated scientifically.

Comprehension. Music videos are more than just television plus music. They are self-reinforcing: if viewers hear a song after having seen the video version, they immediately "flash-back" to the visual imagery in the video.33 Obviously, what impact music videos have depends on how the viewer interprets them. New evidence suggests that teenagers are a diverse group whose perceptions cannot always be predicted. For example, adolescent viewers of a Madonna video, "Papa Don't Preach," differed in how they interpreted the story elements based on sex and race (Table 2).34 Black viewers were almost twice as likely to say the video was a story of a father-daughter relationship, while white viewers were much more likely to say it was about teenage pregnancy.

Behavioral Effects

As with television in general, the amount of direct imitation of behavior seen in music videos or on music television is rare, but when it occurs, it makes national headlines.21 Such was the case when MTV's show "Beavis and Butthead" allegedly inspired a 5 -year-old Ohio boy to set fire to his family's mobile home, killing his 2-year-old sister (Albuquerque Journal, October 17, 1993). Although "Beavis and Butthead" is a cartoon, not a music video, it is featured on MTV and much of the show involves the two main characters commenting on music videos.

A handful of experimental studies have been conducted. The concern that the violence in music videos might desensitize the viewer to violence has been born out in at least one study.35 Desensitization appears to operate on both a short- and long-term basis. In another study, 7th and 10th graders who were exposed to 1 hour of selected music videos recorded from music television were more likely to approve of premarital sex than were an adolescent control group.36 In addition, the 10th graders exposed to the videos showed less disapproval of violence. In the most recent study, a group of young, inner-city black males exposed to violent rap videos were more likely to condone violence and less likely to view academic success positively (Albuquerque Journal, June 28, 1994).

While these studies are small, they are significant in paralleling the vast body of research done on media violence.22'24 More research is needed.

Effects of Parental Advisory Labels

Since 1985, record companies have been voluntarily adding parental advisory labels to record albums, tapes, or compact discs that they judge to be violent, sexually explicit, or potentially offensive (Figure). As an alternative, companies can print the lyrics on the jacket cover. There has been a great deal of controversy about whether the labeling would make certain recordings more or less appealing to adolescents.

As mentioned previously, several studies have found that most students cannot accurately describe the themes of their favorite songs and are usually aware of the content or meanings of the lyrics. This raises the concern that labeling the album will call attention to the very themes that parent groups object to. In addition, printed lyrics on the jacket cover might make previously indecipherable lyrics easily accessible. (Imagine, for example, if the Kingsmen had published the lyrics of "Louie, Louie" on their album cover.) Only one experimental study has dealt with the issue of labeling. In it, young adolescents were asked to evaluate the same music, labeled and unlabeled.37 The adolescents liked the labeled music less, but the impact was limited; teens reacted primarily to the music per se, rather than the lyrics.

CONCLUSION

Despite the fact that rock 'n' roll is practically middle-aged and music television just turned 14 in 1995, research on popular music and music videos is in its infancy. There has been surprisingly little research about either despite massive public concern about violent or sexually suggestive lyrics and videos. In addition, little attention has been paid to how these immensely popular media might be harnessed to provide prosocial or health-related messages. To date, no cause-and-effect studies exist to link either music or videos with violent or sexually promiscuous behavior, yet that does not mean that such media are harmless or even desirable. For a small minority of teenagers, certain music may serve as a behavioral marker for psychological distress. The most important questions to ask before drawing any conclusions about the effects of rock music or music videos on an individual adolescent are: "Which music?" and "Which adolescents?"

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TABLE 1

Teenagers' Tastes in Modern Music*!

TABLE 2

Teenagers' Reactions to the Madonna Song "Papa Don't Preach" by Race and Sex*

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