Music is prominent in adolescent lives: teenagers spend between 4 and 5 hours a day listening to music and watching music videos 1 and name music listening as their preferred non-school activity. 2 Therefore, it is not surprising that government officials, researchers and parents alike are concerned about the impact of music on teenagers. Disturbed by the amount of violence portrayed in modern music, adults worry that these messages are contributing to the rise in violence among kids. Forty-eight percent (48%) of Americans say that violence in popular music should be more heavily regulated 3 and 59% would like to restrict violence in music. 4
Forty-seven percent (47%) of mothers with children in public schools believe that violent messages in rap music contribute “a great deal” to school violence, 5 and 66% of 13- to 17-year-olds believe violence in music is partly responsible for violent crimes like the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. 6 However, no studies have documented a cause-and-effect relationship between violent or sexually explicit lyrics and adverse behavioral effects. 7 Studies show that the preference for heavy metal music may be a significant indicator for alienation, substance abuse, psychiatric disorders, suicide risks, sex-role stereotyping, or risk-taking behaviors during adolescence, 8 but music is not the cause of these behaviors. It is hypothesized that teenagers already struggling with those issues may be attracted to heavy metal music, because the lyrics express their own troubled feelings.
Nonetheless, music may contribute to the atmosphere of violence that some argue is generated by popular media. Critics claim that music negatively affects teenagers by repeatedly exposing them to themes such as Satanism, substance abuse, murder, suicide and sexual violence, which may be heavily reinforced and normalized by the frequency of their portrayal. 9 Heavy metal and rap music are especially criticized for lyrics that many believe glorify violence. Music lyrics have also become increasingly explicit in the past two decades. Songs commonly make graphic references to sex, drugs and violence, whereas such sensitive topics were cleverly veiled in the past. 10
In particular, “gangsta rap” is distinguished by lyrics that often involve references to street gangs, gunplay, sex, drug use and violence, and has been accused of extolling violent behavior. Studies have found that exposure to rap music “tends to lead to a higher degree of acceptance of the use of violence.” 11 In addition, several major rap artists have been charged with violent crimes in real life, 12 and many worry that their actions seemingly condone the violent messages in their music. Their celebrity status also serves to glamorize their violent behavior.
Music Television (MTV) redefined music for future generations by creating music videos, and the unique fusion between rock music and visual images continues to be a hit. A 1996 study revealed that boys and girls ages 12 to 19 watch MTV for an average of 6.6 and 6.2 hours each week, respectively. 13 But despite music videos’ popularity among adolescents, many adults criticize the medium as studies show that music videos often contain violence, sexism, suicide and substance abuse. 14 A 1998-1999 study revealed that music videos were more violent than feature films and television, averaging four violent scenes each, 15 and a 1997 study reported that 22.4% of MTV videos contained overt violence and 25% depicted weapon carrying. 16
The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that portrayals of violence in popular music videos could distort adolescents’ expectations about conflict resolution, race and male-female relationships. 17 In a 1998 study of 518 music videos from the four most popular music video networks, almost 15% contained interpersonal violence, averaging 6 violent acts per violence-containing video. 18 Males and females were equally portrayed as victims of violence, but men were three times as likely to be the aggressors and white females were most frequently the victims. 19 African Americans were also overrepresented as both aggressors and victims and were 28 times more likely to be portrayed as victims of violence than aggressors. 20
How much music videos affect teenagers depends on the individual, but researchers argue that when music lyrics are illustrated in music videos, the lyrics’ potential impact is magnified by the accompanying video images. 21 Ambiguous song lyrics become undeniably concrete onscreen, reinforcing messages listeners may have missed. Several studies indicate that music videos may desensitize adolescents by frequently exposing them to violence. 22 Watching videos may also induce violent and aggressive feelings, potentially cultivating attitudes that may lead to certain types of violent behavior. One study of 400 male and female students showed that the more violent music videos were, the more angry, fearful and aggressive viewers felt. 23 Another study reported that eliminating access to MTV decreased the number of violent acts among teenagers and young adults in a locked treatment facility. 24
Some researchers raise concerns regarding depictions of women as sexual objects in music videos, where inappropriate behavior, such as unwanted sexual advances and general disrespect towards women, is repeatedly portrayed as normal. Sut Jhally, a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, created a video entitled “Dreamworks: Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Videos,” which effectively shows how music videos dehumanize women, reducing them to body parts readily available for the sexual satisfaction of men. Although outright violence towards women is rarely shown, it is implied through stage props like whips and chains and is reinforced by the women’s permissive attitudes. Jhally stresses that music videos do not cause violence, but may encourage unrealistic expectations regarding women, leading to certain types of sexist attitudes and behaviors. “The more TV you watch, the more you think the world is like TV,” Jhally explains. “You tend to act on the stories you have access to.” 25