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Popular song lyrics contain sex, alcohol and no regrets

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

It's all about tonight.

At least that's the message being sent in popular lyrics these days. A close analysis of the top 20 songs on the 2011 Billboard charts reveals little about long-term commitment. There are almost no direct references to fidelity. There is a lack of a family element.

And there are no references to regret.

Popular song lyrics are having commitment issues. Studies have shown that references to sex, drugs and alcohol are not only becoming more blatant, they are affecting listeners. Technology has made access to music, lyrics and video easier than ever. At the same time, attempts at "shock value" are pushing boundaries. With experts warning of serious consequences, it is becoming increasingly important for listeners to be aware of the messages coming through their headphones.

Lyrics analysis

According to a content analysis done by Brian Primack, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, references to sexual activity in lyrics are common, and degrading sexual references are more prevalent than non-degrading sexual references.

Primack analyzed Billboard magazine's top songs of 2005 with a complex coding process to determine degrading and non-degrading sexual references. In the study, called "Degrading and Non-degrading Sex in Popular Music: A Content Analysis," he found that 103 of the 297 songs referenced sexual activity. Out of those, degrading references occurred 65 percent of the time, whereas non-degrading lyrics occurred 36 percent of the time.

Additionally, songs with references to degrading sex also were more likely to include references to substance use, violence and weapons.

In an analysis performed by the Deseret News, nine of the top 20 Billboard hits of 2011 contained an overall theme of sex and explicit sexual references throughout the entire song, including Katy Perry's "E.T.," Rihanna's "What's My Name?" and Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger." The top 20 songs contained at least 40 references to sex or a sexual act and more than 50 references to a short-term hookup. (Counts were made each time a chorus repeated.) One example is Pitbull's "Give Me Everything," which reads, "Tonight. I will love, love you tonight. Give me everything tonight, for all we know, we might not get tomorrow."

Those 20 songs also contained between 30 and 40 references to either alcohol, drugs or violence. Alcohol references were especially prevalent in Pink's "Raise Your Glass." Violence was prominent in "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People, which talks about a boy named Robert finding a gun in his father's closet and warning other kids they "better run, better run, faster than my bullet."

Conversely, the Deseret News' analysis also found the songs contained more than 80 words of affirmation, including Perry's "Firework" and Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are."

But overall, there were only two direct mentions to family in the top 20 and three mentions of some type of long-term commitment, such as Mars' "Grenade," where he says he would do anything for his lover, including catching a grenade, putting his hand on a blade and jumping in front of a train.

Blatantly Obvious

Jane Brown, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, has dedicated 30 years of her life to studying the effects of media on adolescents.

She said popular music has always been about love, sex and romance, referencing Cole Porter's 1928 classic "Let's Do It," which begins, "Birds do it, bees do it." But she has also seen music becoming increasingly explicit.

Primack agrees.

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