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Stanford Report, November 12, 1997

Part II - music at core of youth culture: 11/97

Rock & Roll: Does it influence teens’ behavior?

(Continuation of article)

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 the 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." SR