Our Children and Pop Music

Can you imagine a world without music? For most of us, music is such a built-in soundtrack to our lives that we don’t even realize how much it surrounds us, not only in specific activities like worship or exercise, but also in our leisure time. In fact, according to a 2014 study by Nielsen’s Music 360, 93% of the U.S. population listens to music regularly, racking up as many as 25 hours of listening time each week. We fill our lives with music because, as Robert G. Insersoll once said, “Music expresses feeling and thought without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.” Because of this profound ability to affect us, it is worthwhile to be aware of what kind of music we put into our lives during all those hours of listening. This is especially important when it comes to our children and the music we allow them to be exposed to.

Speaking an elementary school music teacher, this concern is a very real one to me and, in my experience, I have found two things to be true about the way that children respond to music. First, they consistently feel strongly about the music they listen to and are passionately attached to the artists that they love. When they like an a singer/band, they “own” them, so to speak–memorizing the lyrics, watching every music video, and so on. Second, predictably, there is an overwhelming preference toward current popular music in their listening tastes. I should clarify that I do not mean only the genre of “pop” music, but rather music that is, in fact, popular in our society today. Nielsen’s study showed that in 2014 the three most listened to types of music in the U.S. were rock, pop, and R&B/Hip-hop, and those are the styles I’m referring to as today’s “popular music.”

One issue with much of this music is that it promotes behavior that is unwise and dangerous. We hear Katy Perry’s song “This is How We Do” glorifying the lifestyle of losing yourself in alcohol and sex, as she gives “shout outs” to those who deserve (as she says), “Respect!” for their actions: “This one goes out to all the ladies at breakfast in last night’s dress /… to all you kids that still have their cars at the club valet and it’s Tuesday /…to all you kids, buying bottle service with your rent money / …to all you people going to bed with a ten and waking up with a two.” Another example is “Time of Our Lives” by Pittbull: “I knew my rent was gon’ be late about a week ago / I worked my *** off, but I still can’t pay it though / But I got just enough to get off in this club / Have me a good time before my time is up. … Ooh, I want the time of my life.” He couldn’t pay rent, but somehow he managed to come through to pay for alcohol.

Today’s popular music also consistently idealizes a distorted and false image of masculinity and femininity, while making sexual relationships appear to require aggression and lust to be exciting and desirable. In fact, many songs specifically revolve around the hunter (the man) forcing his prey (the woman) into submission. An example is “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, which speaks from a man’s perspective as he tells a woman that she may be a “good girl,” but he knows that she “wants it.” It’s all about those blurred lines, he says, and he knows her “no” really means “yes.” Maroon 5’s song “Animals” is similar: “Baby, I’m preying on you tonight / Hunt you down eat you alive / Just like animals /…Maybe you think that you can hide / I can smell your scent for miles / …Don’t tell no lie / You can’t deny / That beast inside.” It is ridiculous that, despite the way our culture is constantly preaching the importance of women’s rights, much of our most popular music does the exact opposite. Look at Meghan Trainor’s hit song “All About That Bass,” which has been marketed as promoting positive body image in girls, but in fact promotes sexual objectification and promiscuity: “Yeah, it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two / But I can shake it, shake it / Like I’m supposed to do / ‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase / And all the right junk in all the right places.”

There is an overwhelming tendency to reduce women simply to their bodies and their ability to give men pleasure. The lyrics of Usher’s “I Don’t Mind” demonstrate this well: “Shawty, I don’t mind / If you dance on a pole / That don’t make you a ho /…Go make that money, money, money… / You can take off your clothes / Long as you coming home, girl, I don’t mind.” Isn’t that nice? What a healthy relationship! True understanding of masculinity and femininity doesn’t even enter the picture.

As if the lyrics weren’t bad enough, there are also the music videos that accompany them, complete with vivid and attractive images, and full of sexual objectification of men and women alike. Combine this powerful visual stimulant with extremely catchy songs (singable, memorable melodies with with a strong, hypnotic beat), and you have something that is difficult for children to resist. In fact, Nielsen’s study showed that teenagers actually prefer to use YouTube to listen to music because they get to see the music videos too (64% listed YouTube, while 56% listed the radio first). Remember “Animals,” from earlier? That video shows a man who stalks a woman until she submits to him, mostly through scenes of objectifying images of the woman, hypersexualized material, and shots of the man (who works in butcher’s shop) handling the animal carcasses while he smears blood all over his body. This “love story”ends with the two nude and embracing while blood soaks them.

The examples I’ve used in this article are, by necessity, tame. Most songs were too vulgar to be published here. If you need more proof, however, here’s a list of chart-toppers in recent years: “G.D.F.R.,” “Truffle Butter,” “Talk Dirty,” “Somebody,” “Stuck on a Feeling,” “Beg for It,” “Bang Bang,” “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” “Black Widow,” “Wiggle,” “Anaconda,”“Habits (Stay High),” and “Talking Body.” You will sometimes hear the argument that today’s music is no worse than any other decade’s music, because it has always been about sex and love. “So what if the lyrics are a little more blunt now?” people ask. The reality is, however, that they are much more than blunt, they are explicit, and (with the help of music videos) paint a glorified image of lust and sexual use. Children in earlier times may have been exposed to romantic and sensual lyrics and imagery, but that doesn’t even come close to what they hear and see now; not just in an occasional song, but in the majority of them. If you doubt it, I challenge you to watch the music video for any of these songs I’ve mentioned here, and to really listen to the lyrics.

The sad thing is, this is what many children are growing up on these days–this is what they are hearing as they go through puberty and begin to explore and understand their sexuality. How can we expect our children to have a balanced and healthy mindset about sex if they are constantly absorbing the message in these songs of sexual selfishness and confusion? For many children, this music is the primary instruction they receive in regards to sexuality. And even if they are hearing about real love and the virtue of chastity from the adults in their lives, that is hardly a compelling defense against their constant exposure to this music that they know and love. Children don’t just listen to these songs, they learn them: they memorize the lyrics, watch the music videos, absorb it all with their eyes and ears wide open. They learn to consider the type of relationship portrayed through this music and videos as not only acceptable but actually desirable, and think that these relationships (void of true intimacy and true affection) are the type they should aim for in their lives.

As adults, we have the right to listen to whatever music we like (although we should still  be conscious of our own musical choices), but children need to be guided and guarded in their listening habits. They need a “musical diet,” if you will. Just as much as it would set our children up for a myriad of future issues if we allowed them to grow up eating nothing but junk food, it is also a disservice to let them grow up with a musical diet of nothing but junk music. It is not that they can never listen to popular music, but there has to be the understanding that so much of today’s popular music contains real dangers and has the potential to damage your child’s understanding of sexuality and intimacy as they grow into adulthood. As the singer Bono once said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” Music does change people: it forms and molds people. We owe it to our children to protect them from the influence of a lot of current popular music, because to do less is to set them up for failure.


Rebecca Smith is a music teacher at a Catholic elementary school and serves as music director (pianist/organist, choir director and cantor) for a Catholic parish. She can be reached at rebeccasmith.rcc@gmail.com.

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