Media effects have been a hot topic in United States social history, especially with the newest in technology, which brings video and film to the personal computer and ipod. However, one of the most long-standing debates does not concern new technology, but an older medium – music. For nearly five decades, psychologists, scientists and parents have expressed concern that music lyrics could affect listeners and behavior, even violent behavior. Despite some switch in focus to violent and sexual content in film and internet video, music lyrics still hold concern for their possible contribution to aggressive behavior in the United States and elsewhere.
In response to this concern, many public and private investigations have sought to reach some sort of conclusion on the impact that music lyrics may have on aggressive behavior of young people. The 1982 National Institute of Mental Health report noted that media violence, including violence in music, was a “serious threat to public health,” and by the 1990s, most research concluded that “media violence on aggressive and violent behavior was real, causal and significant” (Anderson, et al.
This was followed by a Congressional Public Health Summit which consisted of six medical and public health organizations. Their conclusion delivered as a joint statement of all was that “entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children” (Anderson, et al., 2003).
These research organizations define aggression as “any behavior that is intended to harm another person” and can include not only physical aggression, but also sexual aggression, verbal aggression, and indirect aggression. Particular attention has be revisited on music lyrics with the rise in popularity during the 80s and 90s of the music video.
Researcher found that music videos are laden with violence and “explicit aggressive content” with “antisocial overtones” (Anderson, et al. 2003). In fact, a study by However, Waite, Hillbrand, and Foster (1992) found that aggressive behavior in a forensic inpatient ward decreased significantly after MTV (Music Television) was removed from the television offerings.
Additionally another group of researchers found that males who listened and viewed violent music videos exhibited a significant increase in “adversarial sexual beliefs and negative affect” (Peterson and Pfost, 1989). Additional this group also found that college students who listed to rock music with antisocial themes self-reported a wider range of acceptance for antisocial behaviors. Additional studies also followed test subjects for several years and report that violent music videos can have long term negative and maladaptive effects on young people (Anderson et al, 2003)
One performer who has recently fallen under close scrutiny is Marshall Mathers, known to listening fans as Eminem. Eminem’s character, Slim Shady, appeals to teenagers because her represents the extreme emotions which range from outrage to helplessness that are so common in the lives of adolescents (Doherty, 2000).
Eminem is profane, rebellious, determined to be himself, to speak what he takes to be the truth about his emotions and what he sees around him. He’s all the more determined to do so if it pisses off authority figures. And in a world largely dominated by modern liberal cant, the best way to outrage adults is to come across as anti-gay, anti-woman, and pro-violence. As Eminem says in “Criminal,” “Half the shit I say, I just make it up to make you mad.” Such an attitude speaks directly to adolescent anomie and rebellion (Doherty, 2000).
Lyrics such as this draw teens into the world of Slim Shady, identifying with him and adopting his style of dress, attitudes and behaviors.
Now, these lyrics are even more damaging, according to Myronda Reuben of WBLX in Mobile, Alabama. She says that music now holds less hope and fewer positive possibilities in the lyrics:“Back in the day, when a rapper was talking about ‘the life,’ it was usually about getting out of away from the violence and the streets. Now the music glorifies it, and there are so many contradictory messages out there” (Hall, 2000).
Another example is the phenomenon known as Hip-Hop. Researchers note that these songs target what is known as “marginalized youth,” which is defined as those that experience the “most dramatic social pressures” (Violent Music Lyrics Increase Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings 2003) in life, such as economic, family and behavior issues. These individuals who listen to rap are more likely to become violent. Hip hop music seems to have the common theme of drug use, alcoholism, Aids, and murder.
Thus, results of several experimental studies show that subjects who listened to violent songs were more likely to interpret ambiguous words and phrases as aggressive, and to having “increased feelings of hostility without provocation or threat” (Violent Music Lyrics Increase Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings 2003).
These violent songs with their aggressive thoughts and feelings have daunting implications for real world violence, notes Anderson cited in the aforementioned article:
Aggressive thoughts can influence perceptions of ongoing social interactions, coloring them with an aggressive tint. Such aggression-biased interpretations can, in turn, instigate a more aggressive response–verbal or physical–than would have been emitted in a nonbiased state, thus provoking an aggressive escalatory spiral of antisocial exchanges…(Violent Music Lyrics Increase Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings 2003).
It is easy to see why these concerns are in place when one examines the lyrics from two hip hop songs that have been at the very top of the Billboard charts as cited by Senator Brownback (1998):
“F– home we capture with more hits and slaughter more kids…
You know for real the nig– came f–in’ sucked my d–…
I have nig–z falling like white b in a scary movie…”
“I’m known in the ghetto for slangin’ narcotics…
I come up short I’ma bust yo’f–in’ lip up
Cuz money and murder is the code that I live by
Come to ya set and do a muthaf–in’ walk-by.”
These lyrics from the songs “Get at Me Dog,” by DMX and “Come and Get Some” by Master P show the explicit references to killing, racial slurs, sexuality and drugs.
Ironically, these chaotic songs are highly organized and effective at targeting youth and maximizing profit, which tends to squelch legislative attempts at censorship. Scholars have identified some particularly disturbing rap styles: hustler rap, booty rap, pimp rap, gangsa rap, and don rap – all of which are considered as hardcore rap. Hustler rap features a bad guy figure who dominates others through force, intimidation and/or seduction.
Booty rap applauds sexual shock and nonconformity with titles from the group 2 Life Crew like “Dick Almighty,” “Me So Horny,” and “The Fuck Shop.” Pimp rap focus on money and sex; an example is P Diddy’s song “It’s All about the Benjamins.” Finally, gangsta rap emphasizes the acceptance of antisocial, often violent, behavior. For example, NWA’s (Niggaz Wit Attitude) album Straight Outta Compton offers a written thank you to:
“All the gangsters, dope dealers, criminals, thieves, vandals,
villains, thugs, hoodlums, killers, hustlers, baseheads, hypes,
winos, bums, arsonists, police, maniacs and bad ass kids for
listening to our shit…” (Lena, 2006).
Finally, don rappers (like Master P and Junior M.A.F.I.A.) combine gangsta rap’s emphasis on
violence with the pimp rap emphasis on money and sexual dominance (Lena, 2006).
These songs do translate into aggressive action. For example, in the case of Mitch Johnson, the boy who was charged with killing four fellow students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas, frequently listened to violent rock and rap. Mrs. Pelley is a junior-high-school teacher there who notes that after the shootings, several students revealed that Mitch had a morbid fascination with this type of music. Mrs. Pelley discovered in a discussion with her students that while nearly ball of them could recite the violent and aggressive lyrics of songsw by Bone, Thugs-N-Harmony, and Tupac Shakur, nearly none of their parents had any idea about these songs and performers (Brownback, 1998).
The tragedy of Columbine is also linked to the music of the controversial Marilyn Manson, primarily because shooter Eric Harris’s website contained frequent laudatory references to the odd performer, and both shooters wore Manson t-shirts and recited his lyrics frequently. However, many psychologists note that this type of violence hails from an inability to communicate hatred and rage, a characteristic that these lyrics definitely do NOT have (Sanjek, 1999).
Violent results from these songs are not limited to school kids. In fact, one of the newest controversies concerning music lyrics hails from the dancehalls of reggae. Dancehall reggae lyrics have a long history of aggressive content. One popular artist is Buju Banton, whose 1992 chart topper called ‘Boom Bye Bye” explicitly urged listeners “to burn, shoot and pour acid on gay people” (Werde, 2004), and Artist Beenie Man’s hit “Weh Yuh No Fi Do” similarly argues that gay men should die.
Luckily, gay rights activists have been able to convince some of these dancehall sponsors such as Red Stripe Beer and Pepsi, to exert pressure on these performers to tone down their acts. A group of sponsors did issue a statement to this effect, saying “that the continued use of violent lyrics could ultimately lead to the decline of our music industry, as well as a social and economic backlash” (Werde, 2004).
It’s disappointing to realise that in the 21st century there are still people who want to belittle or frighten other people for their own amusement. Aren’t we better than this? Aren’t our musicians better than this” (Debbonaire, 2006). While violence is rarely linked to only one source, certainly the draw of aggressive music lyrics must share in the responsibility for aggressive behavior in youth.
Possibly because of the enormous profit to be made by this music and possibly because of the first amendment, which protects speech, these lyrics are allowed onto CDs and on videos. Despite warnings and labeling movements, any youngster who wants to obtain a CD is likely to be able to. If not, the most vulgar of these artists perform and release their CDs underground, where they can be copied and spread among these teens.
The best defense against song lyrics is parent involvement and participation. Open discussion will do a lot towards deflecting some of the adverse effects of violence in music. While song writers will do what makes money and kids will buy what music is hot, adults need to take a stand to ensure that this sad trend does not get any worse.
Anderson, Craig A. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in
the Public Interest 4 (3), 81-100.
Brownback, Senator Sam. (1998). The melodies of Mayhem. Policy Review, 92
Debbonaire, T. (2006). Domestic Violence: Are Song Lyrics Really To Blame? BBC Radio. Retrieved 2 June 2007 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/onelife/personal/relationships/
Doherty, B. (2000). Bum Rap. Reason 32 (7)
Hall, D. (2000). Violence In Lyrics, Life An Issue For Radio. Billboard 112.27
Lena, J.C. (2006). Social Context and Musical Content of Rap Music, 1979-1995. Social Forces 85.1: 479-495
Peterson, D.L., & Pfost, K.S. (1989). Influence of rock videos on attitudes of violence against
women. Psychological Reports 64, 319–322.
Sanjek, D. (1999). Paying the Cost to Be the Boss. Popular Music & Society 23 (3), 25-29
Violent Music Lyrics Increase Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings. (2003). Journal for Quality &
Participation 26 (2):46-47
Waite, B.M., Hillbrand, M., & Foster, H.G. (1992). Reduction of aggressive behavior after
removal of Music Television. Hospital and Community Psychiatry 43, 173–175.
Werde, B. (2004). Reggae Boycott. Rolling Stone, 961, November 11.
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