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Lyrics, Liberty and License

Senator Sam Brownback
Address before the City Club of Cleveland
March 23, 1998

Witness List

The Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia

will hold a hearing

"Music Violence: How Does it Affect Our Youth? An Examination of the Impact of Violent Music Lyrics on Youth Behavior and Well-Being in the District of Columbia and Across the Nation"

Thursday, November 6, 1997
12:00 p.m.
342 Dirksen Building

Links lead to testimony of witnesses

Panel I

The Honorable Joseph Lieberman
United States Senate

Panel II

Mr. Raymond Kuntz

Dr. Frank Palumbo
American Academy of Pediatrics

Panel III

Hilary Rosen
Recording Industry Association

Panel IV

C. Delores Tucker
The National Political Congress of Black Women

Dr. Donald F. Roberts
Communications Professor
Stanford University

Free Congress Foundation Policy Insights - A Deserved Bad Rap: Musicís Impact on Youth

A Deserved Bad Rap: Musicís Impact

On November 6, 1997, Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) convened his Government Affairs subcom-mittee hearing to examine "Music Violence: How Does It Affect Our Youth?" There had not been a similar event since September 1985 when the Senate Com-merce Committee held a hearing to examine "Record Labeling." This edition of Policy Insights will review the current crises facing young people in America and current knowledge about the impact of the music they consume.

Americaís Youth in Crisis

Young people are in more trouble, and in more danger, than ever before. Though the teenage popula-tion shrank from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, teen arrests for murder jumped nearly 160%. Similar jumps have occurred for aggravated assault (nearly 100%), simple assault (more than 140%), and rob-bery (nearly 60%). About three million kids between 12 and 17 use marijuana and their use has doubled since 1990. The percentage of kids in that age group using cocaine jumped 167% between 1992 and 1995. Their use of crack (up 108%) and heroin (up 92%) also soared.

By the time they leave their teens, about 80% of males and more than 70% of females have had sex. More than 70% of births to teenagers are illegitimate. Three million teens contract a sexually transmitted disease each year.

Teen suicide has more than tripled since 1970 and is the second leading cause of death among youth in America

Going beyond documenting the crisis to diagnos-ing its causes is challenging. Too many people, how-ever, have ignored the contribution made by the vio-lent and sex-oriented messages carried by popular music, one of the most powerful cultural influences in human history.

Musicís Influence

Aristotle believed music can shape character, while Plato believed music can be used to change whole societies. Dr. Howard Hanson, director of the famed Eastman School of Music, wrote more than 50 years ago that music "has power for evil or good." Teenagers consider musicians as heroes far more than athletes and rate music ahead of religion and books as factors that greatly influence their generation. This is perhaps because they spend so much time listening to it. Between the 7th and 12th grades, young people spend nearly as much time listening to

popular music as they spend in school over 12 years. Senator Brownback noted in his hearing that "the average teen listens to music around four hours a day."

Musicís Message

New York University lyrics professor Dr. Sheila Davis contends that "popular songs...provide the primary 'equipment for living' for America's youth." What "equipment" do America's youth acquire from today's popular music? Put another way, what mes-sages are carried by the very powerful medium of popular music? The trends are invariably negative.

One trend is from the implicit to the explicit. Elvis Presley's soulful singing of "Heartbreak Hotel" gave way to the Rolling Stone's frustrated call to get "satisfaction." Today, the heavy metal band Motley Crew promotes intercourse on an elevator in "Ten Seconds to Love." The rap group 2 Live Crew de-scribes intimate sex acts in brash detail. Columnist John Leo writes: "Vulgar or sexual band names used to be ambiguous or hidden (i.e., the Stones, Cream).

Now there are at least 13 bands named after the male genitals, 6 after female genitals, 4 after sperm, 8 after abortion and one after a vaginal infection."

Another trend is the addition of new, more de-structive, themes. Consumers of today's heavy metal music receive a much more dismal and bleak view of life than those in the last generation. Dr. Paul King, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Tennessee, writes that "[t]he message of heavy metal is that there is a higher power in control of the world and that power is violence - often violence presided over by Satan."

Cultural commentator Michael Medved and Pro-fessor Carl Rashke hold similar views about today's music. Medved asserts that today's music is domi-nated by "sexual adventurism and the focus on physi-cal pleasure as an end in itself." Rashke, Director of the Institute for Humanities at the University of Den-ver, observes that heavy metal music "is a true aes-thetics of violence. It is a metaphysics. It is the tactic of consecrating violent terror, of divinizing it."

Just as heavy metal music added violence and the occult to the earlier rock music themes of sex and drugs, the genre of "gangsta rap" glorifies violence, rape, and drugs. Cypress Hill's "I Wanna Get High" and Tone Loc's "Mean Green" openly advocate mari-juana use while Too Short promotes prostitution and drugs on his Shorty the Pimp album. In 1993, the National Association for the Advancement of Col-ored People's board of directors unanimously adopted a resolution condemning "the words, lyrics, and im-ages that degrade, disrespect and denigrate African--American women with obscenities and vulgarities of the vilest nature."

Musicís Impact

If many messages presented by the powerful medium of music are increasingly negative, what is the answer to the question Senator Brownback's hear-ing asked about music violence and sex: how does it affect our youth?

The American Psychological Association in-cludes "media influences" on the list of factors con-tributing to a child's risk profile. Most research on media effects has focused on television and confirms that television violence begets real-life violence.

This conclusion is shared by medical associa-tions, commissions, and research organizations in-cluding: National Commission on the Causes and Pre-vention of Violence (1969); U.S. Surgeon General (1972); American Medical Association (1976,1996); National Institute of Mental Health (1982); Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence (1984); American Psychological Association (1985,1992).

Addressing Harvard University's School of Pub-lic Health in 1992, Professor Leonard Eron declared: "The scientific debate is over." In 1995, a group of European researchers published findings on the causes of psychosocial disorders in young people. In the chap-ter on media, they concluded that "the data across nations support the conclusion that viewing televised violence leads to aggressive behavior and not vice versa"

Many experts agree with child psychologist Dr. David Elkind that "music can influence young people as much as any visual media." In fact, the American Medical Association concluded in 1989 that music exerts a greater influence on teenagers than television. Surveys find that more teenagers than adults believe that popular music encourages drug use and premarital sex, and contributes to a "culture of aggres-sion."

More specifically, research at the University of Florida shows that the more negative the message, the more young people listen to and believe that message. Professor Hannelore Wass concludes that these find-ings "seem to dispel the notion advanced by the re-cording industry that teenagers are only interested in the sound of music, don't know the lyrics, and listen strictly for fun."

Similarly, two researchers found that listeners to music with "potentially negative themes...were more likely to report that they knew all of the words to their favorite songs and that the lyrics were important to their experience of the music." In another study, these researchers discovered that heavy metal fans ex-pressed greater approval of "sexual, drug-related, oc-cult, and and-social behaviors and attitudes."

In the dozen years since the U.S. Senate last vis-ited the subject, the music is more powerful, the mes-sages more negative, and the impact on young people more destructive. Senator Brownback and other pub-lic officials must decide whether government policy can be part of a solution to this crisis and, if so, whether the state or federal government should pursue that goal and what the best public policy might be. Senator Brownback's hearing, however, showed that the crisis is worse than ever.

[NOTE: Sources for the facts cited in this edition of Policy Insights are available in Heavy Metal, Rap, and America's Youth: Issues and Alternatives (4th edition), forthcoming 1998) to be published by the Free Congress Foundation.]

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, Inc., or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, Inc., 717 Second Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002

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