CONTACT: Kathleen O'Toole, Stanford News Service (650) 723-2558;
BOOK REVIEW EDITORS/ENTERTAINMENT & CULTURE REPORTERS: This release summarizes a book on popular music in the lives of adolescents that is scheduled to be published in late November. Review copies of the book are not yet available, but page proofs can be obtained by contacting Barbara Bernstein at Hampton Press, Inc., (201) 894-1686 or e-mail HamptonPr1@aol.com. For interviews, see contact phone numbers and electronic mail addresses above. Professor Roberts will be available in November for interviews but he will be in Australia and only available by telephone during the month of December.
Pop music at the core of youth culture, says a soon-to-be-released book
Parents of adolescents who can't tell a heavy metal song from a pop rock one may have a tough time discussing the meaning of life with their children, say two professors of communication in a new book on youth and music. That's because music is central to youth culture. At an adolescent party, the key question is not what you do but what music you listen to.
It's Not Only Rock and Roll is scheduled to be published in late November by Hampton Press of Cresskill, N.J. The authors, Professor Donald Roberts of Stanford and Professor Peter Christenson of Lewis and Clark College, spent three years organizing the available research into a coherent overview for those concerned about the influences of pop music and about efforts to censor it. They offer some comfort to parents and others who are worried about graphic sex, morbid violence, overt racism and challenges to authority in popular music lyrics and videos. Music doesn't appear to have massive negative effects, the authors say. But it does seem to be dangerous for some youth, and to ignore its effects on a subset of young people "makes no more sense that to ignore the causes of homicide because only a tiny minority ever commits murder."
Entertainment executives and teenagers who argue that pop music is "just music" do not take into account that "most human learning is incidental in nature and takes place outside of designated educational settings," the authors write. Poetry is "equipment for living," the late philosopher Kenneth Burke once wrote. Christenson and Roberts emphasize that in the adolescent years, pop music is the "heavy equipment" more influential than television, movies and computers.
How youth use music
On average, American youth listen to music and watch music videos four to five hours a day, which is more time than they spend with their friends outside of school or watching television. "Music matters to adolescents, and they cannot be understood without a serious consideration of how it fits into their lives," the authors say.
"Music alters and intensifies their moods, furnishes much of their slang, dominates their conversations and provides the ambiance at their social gatherings. Music styles define the crowds and cliques they run in. Music personalities provide models for how they act and dress."
Music also appears to alter study habits and damage eardrums.
"Such consequences may not spring as quickly to mind as sex and violence, but they may ultimately play just as crucial a role in adolescent development."
Many scholars have viewed television as the central media influence on adolescents, Christenson said, but adolescents devote more time and intensity to music.
They use music most to control mood and enhance emotional states. "Music can make a good mood better and allow us to escape or 'work through' a bad one," he said. But it can also be used to enhance bad moods, which has led some to believe music lyrics about suicide and violence against women have occasionally led troubled youth to commit suicide or violent crimes.
"In one study, a heavy metal devotee reported that he loved the music because it put him in a 'good mood,' by which he meant a mood conducive to smashing mailboxes with bricks," the authors report. "Another said hardcore metal put him in the mood to 'go beat the crap out of someone.' "
Movies and news reports tend to over-emphasize such extreme examples, Christenson said, but the evidence suggests that music is more likely to energize listeners than to de-energize or mellow them out.
Adolescents also use music to gain information about the adult world, to withdraw from social contact (such as using a Walkman as a barrier, not unlike an adult hiding behind a newspaper at the breakfast table), to facilitate friendships and social settings, or to help them create a personal identity.
Warning labels, MTV
Some conventional wisdom takes a whipping in this book, but studies, which have been conducted mostly since the 1980s, also confirm many common-sense notions or casual observations about music and youth. The surprises to most people perhaps are these:
c Labels warning of explicit lyrics on recordings prompt adolescents in general to like the music less. They see it as "tainted fruit," rather than as "forbidden fruit" they must try, Christenson found in the only study done of music labeling. Not everyone in the study reacted negatively to the labeled music, however. "An advisory sticker might well be a come-on for some kids who are alienated from their parents, their school or the mainstream peer culture," he said.
c Music videos are a "powerful new force" in adolescent culture but they don't seem to hold adolescents' interest nearly as long as the music itself. It is the youngest adolescents who watch MTV and other music videos the most, but older adolescents devote more total time to music.
c When kids tell their parents that the "sound" of music matters more to them than the lyrics, there is considerable evidence to support them. Averages, however, conceal ranges, and the more involved adolescents are with music, the more they listen to the lyrics. For many youth, however, "music is often a secondary, background activity rather than a primary, foreground one. It serves as a backdrop to other activities reading, studying, talking, housework, driving," they wrote.
10-year-olds with music passions
Understanding pop music's role in adolescent culture also requires understanding adolescence better than many people do, the authors say. We tend to think of adolescence as the teenage years, but child development experts mark the beginning, on average, at about age 10, at least two years earlier than half a century ago, Roberts said. Because children's biological and social development rates are so variable, the authors suggest that perhaps the easiest way to tell if a particular child has reached adolescence is to notice whether he or she has developed a passion for popular music.
Parenting books, psychoanalysts and mass media all portray the adolescent stage of life as full of crisis, rebellion against adult authority and conflict, the authors say, but research doesn't support that stereotype. "For most kids, adolescence is a period of normal, gradual development in considerable harmony with parental values and cultural expectations." For about 10 percent of families, serious generational conflicts dominate and another 25 percent find the period less happy for their families than earlier years.
The meaning adolescents take away from music videos or lyrics is partly determined by their stage in life. People in general do not discover the meanings of lyrics so much as they construct them, drawing on knowledge they already have, the authors point out. This leads, of course, to hilarious "mondegreens," such as the one coined by a 5-year-old who loved Sunday school because he got to sing about "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear." Adolescents, who typically focus on one new adult issue at a time, are quite likely to take away varied messages from lyrics. Researchers have found, for example, that girls who view Madonna's video of "Papa Don't Preach" give vastly different interpretations of it. For one girl it is a song about true love; to another, it is about parent-child authority conflicts, and to third, it is about assuming adult roles.
In another study, adolescents interpreted both regular heavy metal and Christian heavy metal music as about sex and violence. It appears that the sound of heavy metal has a general reputation for sex and violence, Roberts said, and the youth listening to Christian rock didn't really hear the different message of the lyrics.
Violence a turn-off?
Pop music has been very controversial at least since the 1950s, but even Plato complained about the influence of music on youth. Today, the controversy is greater, with statements about it even taking on prominence in the last presidential campaign. "When it comes to popular music, rabid conviction and lack of consensus go together like Siamese twins," Christenson and Roberts wrote.
The messages of music are not synonymous with its effects, they say, and they remind adults that most of them were served "at least a modicum of media violence and sex" in their youth. They also caution adults not to "lose sight of the sad reality that many kids may be monsters already and simply seek out musical fare that resonates with their monstrous inclinations."
They remind music industry apologists that it is disingenuous to argue that music can have no serious effects simply because it's "only entertainment," or to argue that art can be uplifting but not the reverse.
In several studies, researchers have found that music videos laced with violent images made youthful male viewers more antagonistic in their orientation toward women and more likely to condone violence in themselves and others. In another study of college students shown a set of videos with varying levels of sex and violence, the researchers found that "as violence went up, students said they felt less happy, more fearful and more anxious and aggressive." Yet another study of violence and sex in combination found no significant effect. More research is necessary, the authors say, to clarify the impact with any precision. "No doubt it depends on the type of sex or violence," they wrote.
Male- vs. female-appeal music
From conversations with their friends and acquaintances, Roberts and Christenson have concluded that most adults generally think of adolescent music as all the same. Most don't seem aware of the astonishing increase in music genres and subgenres since they were young. Billboard now reports on more than 20 music charts, and the annual Grammy awards recognize 80 music categories. Yet even the industry does not recognize as much fragmentation as youthful consumers when they are asked about their music preferences.
This diversity and selectivity are important, the authors say, because the "symbolic environment" of genres varies and adolescent preferences are linked to both individual and group identity. "A kid whose tastes run to rap artists such as Coolio or NWA probably thinks of himself in different terms and associates with a different peer group than one who prefers the pop sound of Mariah Carey or Janet Jackson."
American adolescents perceive a cluster of music grounded in the racial origin of performers, they say, and also combine into one group various music types of British origin, such as punk, new wave and reggae. They also recognize "classic" rock of the '60s and '70s as a category, heavy metal, American hard rock, Christian music (including Christian pop and black gospel), a combined jazz-blues grouping, and a cluster of music the researchers call "mainstream pop." College students and other older adolescents make more distinctions than younger ones.
Females and males differ substantially in how much they like various categories, with females showing more attraction to black music and more dislike for hard rock and especially heavy metal. The latter is not surprising, the researchers say, given the harsh view of women in heavy metal lyrics.
Males generally like mainstream pop less than females; males tend to think of music as "unhip" or "uncool." The gender gap is so large in adolescent music tastes that one researcher has suggested the industry simply dump its elaborate pop music categories into "male appeal" or "female appeal." The gender gap holds for other ages also but perhaps is greater in adolescence because the development of cross-gender relationships is a new focus for that age group, the authors say.
More recent surveys suggest the race of performers is also important, particularly among males and among youth from lower-income homes. "The suburban white rap fan (just as the rare urban black hard rock fan) is making a conscious cultural choice and a strong personal statement."
Generally, though, differences in music taste are "not random or idiosyncratic but shaped by social background and other environmental influences." At the same time, the researchers say, it's important to remember that "popular music genres rarely express anything resembling a coherent world view" and the themes of songs are more varied than themes in other media.
For kids alienated from the school culture who wish to project an image of individualism and unconventionality, they say, just hearing a song on commercial radio or MTV can be a reason not to like it. "If the prom queen likes it, maybe it is time to move on to something that smacks a bit less of the mainstream," they wrote.
Age differences also exist and lead to what the researchers call the Madonna contradiction. "Despite Madonna's phenomenal commercial success throughout her career, few college freshmen will admit publicly to owning any of her music." A great many Madonna albums are skeletons in college students' bedroom closets at home, the researchers suspect.
The authors are particularly intrigued by rap music's crossover appeal, an anomaly. Rap is extremely popular with white youth and as popular with girls as boys, despite its misogynist and hypermasculine nature. Part of its appeal, the authors say, is for the body rather than the ear. Rap flourishes as dance music and girls are more interested in dancing. As "cultural tourists," suburban white girls may distance themselves from the real meaning of rap lyrics, while African American females who are often repelled by the lyrics still enjoy dancing.
The authors are troubled by one implication of white use of rap music. To the extent it is the primary source of information about African Americans and that music companies intentionally distort the urban African American experience, "the impact of crossover rap listening may be more to cultivate negative racial stereotypes than to advance cross-cultural understanding."
Less mainstream than rap is heavy metal, a category that also draws criticism from adult critics. Evidence suggests it appeals most to white males. The peer group has a stronger hold on heavy metal fans, and they have less respect for women than other adolescents.
"However, if there is a syndrome at work here, it is a 'troubled youth syndrome,' not a heavy metal syndrome," the researchers say. That is, adolescents who are troubled or at risk in various ways tend to gravitate to heavy metal, but most heavy metal fans are not on drugs, not in jail, failing school or depressed.
Music taste and school grades
The relationship between academic success or failure and music taste may be very important, the authors say. Studies indicate early school achievement influences later music choices, not the other way around. Lower school commitment is generally associated with heavy metal, and in the view of at least one British researcher they cite, low-achievers embrace heavy metal as a "cultural solution" to their low standing in the traditional school pecking order. The music reinforces who one is and tells others what group he or she belongs to.
Given this connection, Christenson and Roberts urge adults to adopt a stance of "respectful disagreement" with the negative values they see in the music some adolescents favor. When teachers and administrators stigmatize peer groups based on music, "the wedge between these kids who, after all, are often the ones who most need to be reached and the mainstream school culture is driven even deeper."
They finish their book with comments on these 1974 lyrics by the Rolling Stones: "I know it's only rock and roll, but I like it."
"The Stones knew this was a lie even as they sang it," Roberts and Christenson say. "Then as now, it wasn't only rock and roll, and kids didn't just like it, they loved it."
See www.roberts-etal.com for author bios, overview, order information, comments and reviews.
By Kathleen O'Toole