A teenager enters your home or classroom singing, "I've got a passion in my pants and I ain't afraid to show it, show it, show it. I'm sexy and I know it..." from the group LMFAO. The popular music video for this song features porn star Ron Jeremy. Or maybe your teenager is singing "I just had sex and it felt so good" by The Lonely Island, another very popular song. How's a parent or teacher to react?
Parents have come a long way since worrying about the swivel hips of Elvis, the supposedly long hair of The Beatles or even a long way since Tipper Gore was criticizing Frank Zappa and trying to get warning labels and a parental ratings system on music CDs back in the 1980s. Since music is now mostly downloaded rather than sold in stores, ratings systems no longer work. Some of the most popular songs in the Apple Itunes store and on Youtube.com, like the ones I quote above, employ obscene lyrics and images in order to get teens' attention. An analysis of the top 10 music CDs in 1999 revealed that 42% of the songs contained very explicit sexual content, according to the National Institute on Media. Many songs also contain messages of violence, racism, homophobia, hatred toward women, and glorification of drug and alcohol abuse.
The American Academy of Pediatrics observed in 1999:
A teenager's preference for certain types of music could be correlated or associated with certain behaviors. As with popular music, the perception and the effect of music-video messages are important, because research has reported that exposure to violence, sexual messages, sexual stereotypes, and use of substances of abuse in music videos might produce significant changes in behaviors and attitudes of young viewers.
Another AAP study concluded that "youth who listened to more degrading sexual content...were more likely to subsequently initiate intercourse and to progress to more advanced levels of noncoital sexual activity.
Listening to music with degrading sexual lyrics is related to advances in a range of sexual activities among adolescents...Reducing the amount of degrading sexual content in popular music or reducing young people’s exposure to music with this type of content could help delay the onset of sexual behavior."
The study cites surveys in which "most sexually experienced teens wish they had waited longer to have intercourse; other data indicate that unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are more common among those who begin sexual activity earlier. Popular music may contribute to early sex. Music is an integral part of teens’ lives. The average youth listens to music 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day. Sexual themes are common in much of this music and range from romantic and playful to degrading and hostile."
Jonathan McKee writes that kids who frequently listen to or watch trashy music have
- an increased risk of developing beliefs in false stereotypes and an increased perceived importance of appearance and weight in adolescent girls
- an increased probability that they would engage in violence, a greater acceptance of the use of violence, and a greater acceptance of the use of violence against women
- an increased acceptance of date rape
- permissive sexual behaviors
- more accepting of premarital sex (specifically with those watching MTV)
- increased risky behaviors
- alcohol use
For a sample, McKee suggests parents "take a peek at the Black Eyed Peas music video for their seemingly innocent song, I Gotta Feeling, a video that maintained the number one spot on iTunes more than almost any other song in 2009. Videos like this are feeding our kids with lies that catalyst eating disorders (young girls trying to measure up), permissive sexual behaviors, alcohol use and other risky behaviors."
Parents shouldn't be afraid to inspect kids' music collection and to set ground rules, such as "that music doesn't belong in our house, on your phone or on your IPOD," he says.
Update: My teenage son initially accused me of over-reacting. "No one cares, Dad, except you." So I posed the question to my Facebook connections: "When a teenager enters your home or classroom singing obscene sexual lyrics from very popular songs, what's a parent or teacher to do?"
One Turkish teen gave a conflicted response: "C'mon all teenagers listen these kinda music nowadays. Don't interrupt him, or join him singing :D just kidding, it is obviously disrespectful act. He deserves to be punished."
Another Turkish teen said: "Find a very popular but "proper and decent" song that could discourage them from singing the other song, and propose singing the specific song together :)"
A 21-year-old American girl wrote: "I think that the best thing to do is to say "This is neither the time or place for this. It is obscene and disrespectful." It is not good to go through their music and delete songs you think are inappropriate. Children and teens will learn all of these obscenities sooner or later. The best thing to do is just say "It's inappropriate. Please do not sing these lyrics out loud."
A middle-aged mom to a 21-year-old recommended ignoring it. "Ask them to join you in singing something else, a Christmas carol." She went on to acknowledge that "teenagers love to test the limits. That's what gives us gray hair."
Another middle-aged mom was funny. "I recall saying I liked a particular song (catchy beat) and my son saying, 'Mom, do you know what they're saying?!!?' "
A middle-aged married woman, not a parent, empathized: "I had that problem with liile kids. They were singing Candy Shop by 50 cent. I told them that the song had a very bad meaning and that they shouldnt sing it. They of course wanted to know what the somg meant. I told them that I was too polite to tell them the meaning."
Three dads recommended intervention. One recalled what his father told him. "My dad use to say, as long as you eat here, sleep here, my house, my rules. This applies to all shared spaces. Respect." Another dad said he had the same rules. And a third summed it up this way: "We remember we are older, wiser, and have a better credit rating and assert ourselves. Society needs adults and teens just aren't there yet."
Update #2: After discussing this article with my son, he now says that that Lonely Island song is "dirty" and he no longer likes it. But he still likes the beat of the LMFHO song.