A fire-obsessed culture may be expected to smile wryly at pyromaniacs and smirk at those who carelessly tempt fate by sloshing about with flammable liquids. Its cultural elite might laugh with condescension at people who wanted such dangerous behavior contained.

Only to outside observers would they appear as the hypocrites they are when they react with shock and horror as buildings catch fire.

In recent days, many in the United States have reacted with varying degrees of shock or disapproval at young singer Miley Cyrus' disgusting performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, which were broadcast over that cable network. We agree with that reaction, but we're wondering how many of them understand the hypocrisy of being shocked by the visual display of something they have casually tolerated in song lyrics and television and movie scripts for so long.

As a television network, MTV should be ashamed for rating the awards show appropriate for people as young as 14. But to a much greater degree, nearly all networks, movie production facilities and a good deal of the viewing public should be equally ashamed for fueling the flames of an obsession with smut that now seems to saturate popular entertainment choices.

Merely telling parents they have a duty to control the listening and viewing habits of their children is not enough. It is like telling residents of a town with mud-soaked streets that they alone are responsible for keeping their children clean. The task would be much easier if everyone understood the dangers and worked together to make things better.

Last year, the Deseret News analyzed the top 20 Billboard hits of 2011 and found nine of them contained a consistent theme of explicit sexual references throughout. The 20 songs contained at least 40 sexual references and more than 50 references to short-term, non-committal encounters. Violence, drugs and alcohol were similarly common themes, with up to 40 references.

The report included comments from Brian Primack, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, who also has studied the contents of lyrics. These, he said, are not to be dismissed as having no effect.

"For example, they often give young people a sense of what is normal, what is desired or expected from them even if they are not understanding every word," he said. "These messages are getting across whether or not the people who are listening to them realize it."

Together with other researchers, he studied the effect lyrics have on behavior and concluded they have a significant correlation. This is in line with the results of other such studies. Young people may not immediately act out the messages contained in lyrics — some of which they may not be entirely conscious of while listening to a song — but over time they will change their assumptions, expectations and desires given repeated exposure to similar messages.

15 comments on this story

A report on the "Sexualization of Girls" by the American Psychological Association reached even more startling conclusions about the effects of negative messages through popular media and fashions. A review of a wide array of studies on the subject, the report found evidence that such messages cause emotional and mental harm, cause girls to perform at lower levels academically, lead to mental health issues and even have negative effects on the attitudes and behavior of boys and men.

Given all this, popular culture's obsession with degrading entertainment is not just boorish and banal, it is dangerous. Like a fire-obsessed culture that ignores the charred bodies of victims, its purveyors and fans need to be made accountable for the damages.

Controlling such messages in an Internet age may be challenging, but a public armed with real information about the dangers involved ought to be willing to force a higher level of entertainment.