For more than half a century, popular music has been widely criticized for contributing to a variety of problematic behaviors among adolescents, ranging from early sexual activity to suicide. Initially, social critics and commentators claimed that popular musicians and bands such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles were encouraging young people to engage in early sexual activity. For example, when Presley first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, the home viewing audience was able to see the performer only from the waist up. The cameras focused on the upper portion of Presley’s body rather than providing a comprehensive view, because Presley’s trademark hip gyrations were considered to be too sexually suggestive for mainstream America, especially for the young viewers of the Ed Sullivan show. Twenty years later, in 1976 the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a campaign to ban “sexy songs” from being played on the radio, citing concerns that songs with sexual references were contributing to high rates of teen pregnancy.
Over the following decades, the criticism of popular music shifted its focus. Rather than highlighting the sexual content of popular music, critics began to condemn popular music for contributing to alcohol use, drug use, and violence among adolescents. For instance, in 1985 Tipper Gore (wife of then Tennessee Senator and later U.S. Vice President Albert Gore) helped found the Parents Music Resource Center, which claimed that some types of rock music such as punk rock and heavy metal were contributing to increased drug use and violence among young people. The Parents Music Resource Center lobbied federal lawmakers to place restrictions on adolescents’ access to rock music; as a result of its campaign, parental advisory notices were eventually placed on the packages of music with explicit lyrics.
A little over a decade later, in response to growing concerns about an increase in youth violence–concerns generated by the school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Littleton, Colorado, Springfield, Oregon, and West Paducah, Kentucky in the late 1990s–President Bill Clinton commissioned the Federal Trade Commission to study the marketing of violent entertainment, inclusive of the marketing of music with violent lyrics. More recently, in 2005 the Reverend Al Sharpton asked the Federal Communications Commission to punish musicians who had become involved in violent activity by denying the musicians airplay on television and radio for a period of 90 days.
Critics of popular music such as Tipper Gore and Al Sharpton charge that it is not only the lyrics and message of the music that contribute to risky behaviors such as alcohol use and violence, but also the lifestyles of the musicians who may serve as role models for young people. Rap music and musicians, in particular, have been widely criticized for encouraging youth violence. In its earliest days, this genre included controversial songs such as “Cop Killer” by Ice-T and “Deep Cover” by Dr. Dre, which have explicitly violent messages. There have also been widely publicized incidents of violence involving rap musicians. For example, during his brief life the enormously popular rapper and actor Tupac Shakur (founder of the rap group Thug Life) was suspected of numerous criminal activities and convicted on several criminal charges, including sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel room and physically assaulting a former employee. In addition to engaging in violent behavior, Shakur was the victim of violence. In 1994, he was shot and robbed while in the lobby of a recording studio in New York City but survived the assault. Two years later, he was again shot, this time in a drive-by incident in Las Vegas. Shakur died in a hospital several days later owing to complications related to the shooting. The aforementioned incidents involving Shakur, plus numerous other incidents of violence involving rap musicians such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, and 50 Cent, have fueled widespread criticism of rap music.
While many individuals and groups have condemned popular music and musicians for encouraging risky behaviors among youth, little empirical evidence exists to indicate that music affects risky behavior (e.g., drug use) or encourages violence. Whereas an abundance of research indicates that viewing violent actions (e.g., violent television programs, violent movies) encourages violent behavior among young people, few scholars have investigated how listening to music with violent lyrics may influence violent behavior among youths. There is a very limited body of research that suggests certain types of music can contribute to hostile attitudes, suicidal behaviors, and the acceptance of violence against women, but there are no empirical studies that indicate a specific genre of music such as heavy metal or rap has a direct impact on levels of youth violence, nor are there any scientific studies that indicate the availability of music with explicitly violent lyrics is correlated with levels of school violence.
Despite the paucity of evidence supporting the contention that music with violent lyrics contributes to violent behavior, a number of individuals and groups have continued to condemn popular musicians for contributing to risky and violent behaviors among youths. For example, in 2007 the police in Colorado Springs claimed that an increase in homicides in the city was linked to violent rap music and the growing number of hip-hop clubs in the city. As previously noted, however, little empirical data exists that proves music with violent lyrics causes violent behavior. Also, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that the availability or popularity of music with violent lyrics has any impact on rates of violent crime. In fact, even though music with violent lyrics remains widely available, the rates of violent crime (inclusive of violent crimes committed by youths and school-associated violent crimes) have decreased at a steady pace since the mid-1990s– a social trend that indicates the availability of music with violent lyrics has little or no affect on levels of youth violence.
- 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 Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 960-971.
- Associated Press. (2005, March 24). Sharpton complains to FCC about violence in rap, requests penalties. USA Today [online version]. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-03-24-sharpton-fcc_x.htm
- Federal Trade Commission. (2000, September). Marketing violent entertainment to children: A review ofselfregulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording, and electronic game industries. Washington, DC: Author.
- Federal Trade Commission. (2001, December). Marketing violent entertainment to children: A one-year follow-up review ofselfregulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording, and electronic game industries. Washington, DC: Author.
- Frosch, D. (2007, September 30). Colorado police link rise in violence to music. New York Times [online version]. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/03/us/03hiphop.html?_r=0
- Lawrence, J. S., & Joyner, D. J. (1991). The effects of sexually violent rock music on males’ acceptance of violence against women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15, 49-63.
- Martin, L., & Segrave, K. (1993). Anti-rock: The opposition to rock n’ roll. Jackson, TN: Da Capo Press.
- Stack, S., & Gundlach, J. (1992). The effect of country music on suicide. Social Forces, 71, 211-218.