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Stanford Report, November 12, 1997

Pop music at core of youth culture: 11/12/97

Rock & Roll: Does it influence teens’ behavior?


Parents of adolescents who can't tell heavy metal from pop rock 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 & Roll is scheduled to be published in early December by Hampton Press of Cresskill, N.J. The authors, Professor Donald Roberts of Stanford and Professor Peter Christenson of Lewis and Clark College, a former graduate student of Roberts', 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. Roberts also summarized the research before a Senate subcommittee on Nov. 6. The book offers 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."

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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 commonsense notions or casual observations about music and youth. The surprises to most people perhaps are these:

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.

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