The effect of explicit lyrics on society

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The effect of explicit lyrics on society

Drew Cummings, Kimberly Harris, Elizabeth Mitros, Mikaela Mueller, Kaitlin Shumrick


A major part of popular music has always involved pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. In the music industry today, artists are pushing the limits of what is acceptable. Who benefits from the use of explicit lyrics in music? One can argue that it is an attempt to drive record sales through sparking controversy, but maybe it is just how the artist fully expresses themself. This fine line that divides vulgarity from artistic expression is an issue that has plagued society. No matter what the motive behind the explicitness of popular music, there are social implications. Many psychological studies have been performed to test how explicit music affects the brain, in particular aggressive behavior. Government officials and protest groups have fought for censorship legislation and prohibition of the sales of such music.

Daniel Levitin (2006) claims, “As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language.” It is probable that music with negative or angry motives could arouse feelings of aggression just as sad song brings a tear to your eye. Music affects the brain in ways that are trying to be understood. One major subject of that investigation is how aggressive music affects brain function.

What we attempt to investigate in this paper is the effect of explicit lyrics on society. To do this, we decided to focus on four specific areas in which such music affects society: drug subculture, aggression towards women, legal legislation, and censorship.

Although drug subcultures have long been part of American society, the concept has been popularized over the past several decades through various media outlets. The most notable and widely covered of these is the music industry. The definition of a drug subculture is difficult to find in any official dictionary or encyclopedia; however Wikipedia (2007) defines it as “groups of people loosely united by a common understanding of the meaning and value (good or otherwise) of the incorporation into life of the drug in question.” The article goes on to discuss how such groups can take many different forms, whether it be a small group of friends who take a drug together or full-scale political and social movements concerning drug reform. A drug culture is said to be the product of combining all of these drug subcultures together.

Additionally, there are many different drug subcultures, which stem from the use of separate drugs. For example, the subculture surrounding cannabis use is much larger and different than that of crystal meth users. The division of subcultures arises due to the different kinds of experiences users have, the stigma attached to the drug, as well as the various problems each drug possesses or the users encounter. Different drug subcultures are most often shown in the media via popular music, most noteably hip-hop and alternative/punk rock in today’s society.

However, the concept of drugs’ strong correlation with music is not unique to the current generation. Whether it is a certain musician’s use of drugs or just lyrics about them, drugs and music have gone hand-in-hand for decades. Early rock stars such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were both addicted to speed and other “uppers.” America’s cultural revolution in the 1960s spawned an entire genre of music called “psychadelic rock,” which included artists and drug icons such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The Beatles, arguably the most popular band of all time, wrote lyrics riddled with drug references such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which has been long believed to be about LSD. The advent of “jam bands,” such as Phish, created a second drug revolution where individuals continued to listen to music while on drugs in order to achieve higher states of being or have out of body experiences.

The 1970s continued to be defined by “psychadelic bands,” such as Pink Floyd, and songs like Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” which speaks for itself regarding the guitarist’s drug use in the decade. The disco era, which spanned from the late 1970s through the early 1980s, was defined by heavy drug use, in particular cocaine. The “hair bands” of the 1980s, such as Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses, became notorious for their execissive aclochol and drug abuse. Many of the 1990s’ most promising musicians’ lives were cut short by drug induced deaths. Although the most famous musician death of the decade was the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobaine, it has been widely reported that he was using heroin heavily due to his depression and inability to cope with fame. Other famous 1990s musicians, such as Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon or Brad Nowell of Sublime, died of cocaine and heroin overdoses, respectively.

Keith Richards, the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, has become one of the world’s most famous drug icons for his self-admitted heavy use of numerous substances. A recent inteview with published in NME Music Magazine, asserts that Richards took his dead father’s ashes and snorted them after mixing them with some cocaine (CNN News, 2007). Although Richards has disputed the claims as taken out of context, it is stories like these, which are about rock stars and their drug habits, that seem to capture the public’s attention.

Today’s generation has etched itself into the drug/music timeline with the advent of clubs drugs such as Ecstasy, rave parties, and hip-hop music. In a story reported by CNN in February of 2001, London police officials were investigating whether rapper Eminem instigated British youth to use Ecstasy at one of his shows in Manchester, England. Although no lawsuit was ever filed, the extent that rappers make illicit drug references in their lyrics, such as Eminem’s “My mom smokes more dope than I do,” clearly have an impact on today’s society

Although current drug lyrics are under more scrutiny than those in the past, the linkage between drugs and music is in no way a new concept. It has been going on for generations and will continue to exists for decades to come.

Another effect of popular music is violent acts towards women. Often in music videos, women are portrayed as objects. They appear to find rappers so irresistible that they are willing to do whatever it takes to be with them. However, it is not always the male rappers objectifying the female dancers. Sometimes the women rappers themselves are to blame. Ayana Byrd’s article Claiming Jezebel states, “…Bringing it back to the female rappers is Lil’ Kim’s video ‘How Many Licks,’ in which she turns herself into a doll with replaceable parts, a move so infused with self-objectification that it seems almost laughable in its own obviousness.” Women rappers allow themselves to be viewed as sexual objects and rap almost solely about sexuality. They talk about their ready and willingness to have sex in their songs and dress scantily. They call themselves “bitches” and “hoes” (Byrd, 2004). However, it is important to keep in mind that these women work in a male controlled industry with their male bosses telling them what to dress like and how to present themselves (Byrd, 2004). Regardless, the rap industry is one in which women are constantly objectified. Their humanity is stripped away constantly. When someone is no longer seen as a human they aren’t treated with respect and it is much easier to act violently toward them.

One issue with the media and the rap industry is the abusive lyrics aimed at women. Rapper Eminem is particularly guilty of writing hateful lyrics about women. His lyrics were so offensive that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had to put a restriction on what he can and can not say. In the Song “Kill You”, rapper Marshall Mathers (Eminem) describes and alludes to many violent acts towards his mother, women in general, girls, wives, nuns, and he continues to use other derogatory terms referring to women. These acts include choking, raping, shooting, using a chain saw to murder, and stabbing women. Talking about women in this manner and talking about the violent acts he claims he would perform can be very harmful to society. First they are harmful, because the words are hateful and degrade women to objects. Second, because when a child or a man listens to that song repeatedly on the radio they become desensitized to the fact that what Eminem is rapping about it wrong. Suddenly these obscene acts of violence become “funny” too many people. In a society where people think it is funny to tell women “Bend over and take it like a slut,” or that you want to choke them it is easy to see how a violent rape culture can be formed.

There is evidence to demonstrate that when one is exposed to music of a violent or aggressive nature, one is more likely to act this way themselves (Anderson, 2002). Music can have a profound effect on one’s mood. Music intensifies mood. If one is listening to violent music, chances are they will start to feel violent themselves. What's more many people idolize their favorite musicians, actors, video games, etc. If they see the people they admire performing violent acts, and looking glamorous doing it, chances are they may imitate this behavior. According to social learning theory, people will model their behavior after their role models. If they see their idols doing certain things, they will be receiving the message that it is acceptable to act violently towards women and to threaten women. Therefore popular music can have a profoundly affect violence towards women in our culture.

Another aspect of the effect of inappropriate lyrics in popular songs on society is the legal repercussions and controversies they spark. Perhaps the best example of an artist with inappropriate lyrics is Eminem. At various points in this career, Eminem has been singled out as homophobic, racist, and sexist due to the lyrics in his recorded songs. Specifically, Eminem’s tracks “Kill You” and “Kim” have been criticized for portraying hate and violence, in particular his negative image of women.

“Come on get out/(I can’t I’m scared)/I said get out bitch!/(Let go of my hair, please don’t do this baby)… Don’t you get it bitch, no one can hear you?/Now shut the fuck up and get what’s comin’ to you/You were supposed to love me/{*Kim choking*}/NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED!/BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!” ~Kim by Eminem
“Slut! You think I won’t choke no whore/Till her vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more” ~Kill You by Eminem

The controversy has come back to Eminem in court cases. Due to his reputation for violence and racism, legal charges have been debated in court using his lyrics as evidence or persuasion. In another instance, a rap magazine called The Source published some lyrics recorded by Eminem in his teenage years, with quotes like “black girls only want your money”. Eminem sued the magazine for publishing the lyrics, as it violated a previously established court order not to publish full versions of his racially offensive lyrics. The Source was required to pay Eminem’s legal fees for violation of the court order, but the point was made. Eminem’s self-admitted “foolishness” was shown to the readers of the magazine (USA Today).

A more serious involvement of the impact of song lyrics has been made in the debates surrounding recent school shootings. No doubt, the music choices of Cho Seung-hui, the shooter of the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007, will be reflected upon as insight to his character. Similarly, the role of music was debated in the aftermath of the school shooting in Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999. In 1999, the school shooting by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold brought many controversies to the table, including gun control laws, the nature and consequences of high school subcultures and bullying, and the role of violence in the media. Included in the discussion of the media’s influence was TV, movies, video games, and music. It was stated that the two boys listened to angry music often. The morning of the massacre, they listened to music by Marilyn Manson and others before heading to the school for the shooting.

In response to connections such as these, research has been conducted to determine the effects of inappropriate lyrics in popular music. One thorough study examined what they called the “precursors to aggression”. The researchers found that listening to violent songs let to more aggressive interpretations of otherwise ambiguous situations and wording. The researcher looked at short- and long-term effects of such lyrics on the psyche of listeners. Regarding the short-term effects, “[t]he violent-song-inspired increases in aggressive thoughts and feelings can influence perceptions of ongoing social interactions…” (Anderson et al., 2003). Long-term effects “may contribute to the development of an aggressive personality” (Anderson et al., 2003). In either case, one can see how the consequences could indicate a more aggressive verbal or physical response to provocation, beginning a spiral of increasing aggressiveness toward social situations.

This argument has been used before in attempts to create some sort of censorship of music on the radio. Parents fear for their impressionable children who can’t seem to get enough of these inappropriate lyrics. Mandates have been set in place to help parents to regulate the kinds of music that their children listen to. Parental Advisory stickers are now required on the cover of albums containing offensive lyrics of any kind, be it violence, sexual content, or language. This concept of parental control has also been spread to media such as the television, where parents can control the shows that their children can watch. The relationship between music and personality development has been made, and has been used to regulate some of the exposure of children to these influences, however there is still debate whether it could stand up in court to take the blame for the actions of an angry teenager.

With all the violent and sexually explicit lyrics that are found in today’s modern music, many people including parents, congressmen, teachers, and even the public in general, believe that something must be done to censor them. Censorship can take many forms such as parental advisory labels, banned concerts, banned cover art, rating systems, and legislative bills/laws. Not only is it thought that these lyrics are the cause of teenage violence, drug abuse, and aggression toward women, but also that they are an abomination to society as a whole. Censorship in music is a topic that has brought about much controversy for the past two decades, and although there are currently no censorship laws, many individual businesses, such as radio stations and retail stores, have taken extreme measures to make clear that they do not support crude, obscene, or vulgar lyrics in today’s music.

First of all, radio stations frequently require modern day rap and hip hop artists to record a “clean” version of songs that they want played on the radio. A good example is when Los Angeles rapper Xzibit was preparing to release his latest single, "Front 2 Back," and was told by his record label that the first verse – including the lyrics "Attract bitches like flies to shit/Pop pills and ride the dick/Niggaz can't swing this quick/I'm dark McGwire/Bangin' shit over the fence with Rockwilder” – could not be played on the radio (Diehl, 15). Xzibit was forced to record a cleaner version in order for the song to be aired, this time changing the above lyrics to: “Candy paint automatic an' stick/Rappers can't swing this quick/I'm dark McGwire/Bangin' hits over the fence with Rockwilder," (Diehl, 15). As one can see, the second version does not include any offensive language and is considered “appropriate” for the radio. Usually each radio station will have its own criteria of what they deem appropriate for public airing, and music television shows, such as MTV and BET, have their own criteria as well.

In addition to artists recording clean versions of their music, another measure that’s being taken to ensure the censorship of offensive lyrics is the decision of many retail stores to not sell certain music. One retailer who has chosen this path is Wal-Mart, who will not sell any popular music compact discs that they find offensive (Strauss, A1). All the CDs on Wal-Mart’s shelves are marked either “clean,” or “edited,” and the ones that aren’t have usually been altered from their original version. Also, Wal-Mart will require record labels to alter the artwork displayed on the front of albums in order to meet their criteria. Since Wal-Mart is the single largest seller of pop music in the country, “Its refusal to stock albums with lyrics or cover art that it finds objectionable has long been a frustration for some customers, musicians and record-industry executives,” (Strauss, A1). However, “Because of Wal-Mart's clout, record labels and bands will design different covers and booklets, omit songs from their albums, electronically mask objectionable words and even change lyrics in order to gain a place on Wal-Mart's shelves,” (Strauss, A1).

Even though musical artists and record labels try as hard as they can to resist altering their work, the censorship demands of businesses such as radio stations and retailers ultimately prevails. The censorship issue may forever continue as a very controversial debate; in reality it is the actual distributors of today’s music that will control what is censored.

For almost fifty years, researchers have been collecting experimental evidence on the correlation between exposure to media violence and real-life aggression. The general conclusion is that violence media is casually related to short-term and long-term expressions of aggression (Davis & Palladino, 2006, pp 224-225). One of the consequences of overexposure to media violence is desesitization. Desesitization is a reduction in distressed-related psyschological reactivity to observations or thoughts of violence (Davis & Palladino, 2007, pp 224-225). This causes people to cease to respond to violence and makes it more likely for them to engage in acts of violence.

From our investigation we have found that many psychologist have posed this very same question and have been searching for answers for decades. There is evidence that the media affects development and brain behavior. There is still debate on whether exposure to explicit lyrics about drug use and aggression induce these criminal behaviors in young people. Many defending attourneys have attempt to point the finger at the media and muscians for the wrong doings of their clients. However, the counterpoint argument is that the media did not put the weapom in the hand of the criminal. This is a debate that will continue for as long as the music industry wants to make money, artists want to express themselves, and young people are exposed to explicit lyrics in popular music.


Works Cited
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of the human obsession. New York, NY: Dutton.
Davis, S. F. & Palladino, J. J. (2007). Psychology (5th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
“Drug Subculture.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. (2007). Wikipedia.org. 12 Apr. 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_culture>.
“Keith Richards snorting dad’s ashes? ‘A joke’.” CNN News (2007): 14 pts. 12 Apr. 2007 <http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/Music/04/04/richards.dad.ap/index.html>
“Keith Richards ‘snorted father’s ashes’.” Yahoo News (2007): 14 pts. 12 Apr. 2007 .
“Police seize Eminem show tapes.” CNN News (2001): 19 pts. 12 Apr. 2007 .
Byrd, A. (2004). The fire this time. Claiming Jezebel: Black female subjectivity and sexual expression in hip-hop. New York, New York: Anchor Books.
Anderson, C. A., Carnagey, N. L., & Eubanks, J. (2003). Exposure to violent media: The effects of songs with violent lyrics on aggressive thoughts and feelings. Journal of Personlaity and Social Psychology. 84, 960-971.
Judge rules for Eminem in magazine flap.” USA Today (2004): 17 Apr. 2007.

Diehl, Matt. (2001). Talking S***: How labels clean up songs for radio. Rolling Stone 19 Jul. 2001: 15.
Strauss, Neil. (1996). Wal-Mart's CD standards are changing pop music. New York Times. 12 Nov. 1996.






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