Popular song lyrics contain sex, alcohol and no regrets

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

"In today's world, there is less left to the imagination," Primack said. "There was a tendency in the past for references to drug use or sexual activity to be more hidden."

Primack used the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" as an example, with its purported use of the title as a reference to the drug LSD.

"In today's music, when we do content analysis, the messages are much more obvious," Primack said. "This may be because there is so much competition today that artists need to be shocking and obvious to be noticed."

As an example, he used Perry's "Last Friday Night," which is clearly about excessive alcohol use.

Primack said it's easy to have access to songs that were once labeled "explicit." Young people have immediate access to lyrics and music videos with the Internet, and it's easier for them to listen to the song over and over. With YouTube or iTunes, listeners can not only access the music, but view the video and lyrics and have the opportunity to repeat the song as much as they want all in one sitting.

A common defense

So is there any substance to the argument "I only listen to the song; I don't listen to the lyrics"?

"I think that a lot of the influence of popular music messages can be subconscious," Primack said. "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. These messages are getting across whether or not the people who are listening to them realize it."

Primack conducted a study one year after the aforementioned, in 2009, with other researchers called "Exposure to Sexual Lyrics and Sexual Experience Among Urban Adolescents," where 711 participants were exposed to 14.7 hours of music per week, with one-third of those participants being previously sexually active. Comparing those with the least exposure to sexual lyrics and those with the most, those with the most were twice as likely to have had sexual intercourse.

Those who had not yet had sexual intercourse but were in the highest range of exposure to lyrics "describing degrading sex were nearly twice as likely to have progressed along a noncoital sexual continuum." In this case degrading music means the lyrics contain references to degrading sex.

Primack is the first to state that the research doesn't mean that when someone hears something, they immediately do it. Exposure to degrading music is not the only contributing factor to sexual activity. What the research has shown, he said, is that degrading music does change normative beliefs and sexual behavior. Thus, it's something people need to be thinking about, Primack said.

Brown also participated in a study where 12- to 14-year-olds were interviewed about their "sexual media diet." Over the course of two years, those who had a heavier sexual media diet were twice as likely to have sexual intercourse.

Other studies have been done about musical lyrics' effects on mood, aggression, behavior and violence. As far as mood is concerned, a 1994 study located in the American Psychological Association database called the "Affective Impact of Music vs. Lyrics" states that "lyrics appear to have a greater power to direct mood change than music alone and can imbue a particular melody with affective qualities." In a 2006 study called "Music and Aggression: The Impact of Sexual-Aggressive Song Lyrics on Aggression-Related Thoughts, Emotions and Behavior Toward the Same and Opposite Sex," researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, found "male participants who heard misogynous song lyrics recalled more negative attributes of women and reported more feelings of vengeance than when they heard neutral song lyrics. In addition, men-hating song lyrics had a similar effect on aggression-related responses of female participants toward men."

In another study, conducted in 2003, on violent media called "Exposure to violent media: The effects of songs with violent lyrics on aggressive thoughts and feelings," Craig Anderson and other researchers found college students who heard a violent song were more hostile than students who heard a similar but nonviolent song.

Words from the recording industry

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