Music and its lyrical content has become an integral component of society as it constitutes an essential part in most people’s lives. The advent of MP3 players, ipods and similar gadgets has cemented the widespread reach of musical lyrics, particularly among the so – called MTV generation. While this point cannot be called into question, the exact effect of lyrics on society at large is debatable and is the subject of much controversy. The reason for this is the paucity of research on the said subject. In response to public concern over the harmful effects of explicit lyrics, much has been said and written about it but there is little scientific evidence to back up opposing claims. A careful analysis of the existing research literature, however, reveals that the lyrics in music exercises a profound influence on society and moreover, there is disturbing evidence to show that it does more harm than good.
Arguments and Counterarguments about the Effect of Lyrics in Music
It has been argued that the lyrical content of music has precious little effect on the collective psyche of the masses and that the focus on its pervasive influence and perceived harmful effects is largely uncalled for. The meaning of songs is subject to interpretation, it has been claimed and as such depends entirely on the listener and his or her individual perception.
Besides songs nowadays are layered with intricate meaning and severely tax the cognitive skills of the listeners who usually misinterpret the lyrics or simply don’t care about them. Some are of the opinion that it is solely music as opposed to its lyrical content that affects the masses. Studies conducted by Rosenbaum and Prinsky as well as Wass et al. have supported this claim by revealing that “… listeners have reported that song lyrics are not particularly important to them and that they are more attracted to qualities of music than they are to the lyrics” (qtd. in Hansen & Hansen 178).
All these viewpoints are misleading as they underestimate the sheer insidiousness and impact of the lyrics in songs. The tremendous popularity of rap music bears testament to the power of words, particularly since rap or hip – hop focuses entirely on the lyrics and music merely serves to accentuate the clever wordplay and inherent themes. Thus the genre of rap music with its attendant controversy and crazed fan – following highlights the immense effect lyrics have on society.
Further Hansen and Hansen have concluded from their studies that “…despite low levels of lyric comprehension and recall of song lyrics, listeners were able to extract themes of sex, suicide, violence, and satanism from songs by popular heavy metal groups using schematic processing” (178) . On the basis of this and other studies, it may be concluded that the lyrics in music have the ability to shape impressionable minds, influence beliefs, determine one’s outlook towards life and subsequently at an overt level, affect the behavior and actions of individuals.
Lyrics may enable people to become cognizant of socially relevant issues and empathize with their fellow humans. But more often that not lyrics of popular music appears to spawn harmful effects that have dangerous implications for our society.
The Harmful Effects of Lyrics and Its Impact on Society
Over the years, the lyrical content of music has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. Lyrical themes no longer celebrate romantic love and peace but glorify pleasures of the flesh, aggression and drug use. Therefore people have become increasingly concerned with lyrics replete with sexual and violent overtones, particularly their influence on youngsters.
This concern is not misplaced because in the words of Hargrave and Livingstone, “… studies reveal consistent messages in music lyrics that may be considered harmful including messages promoting violence among boys / men, homophobic messages, or those encouraging early sexuality among young girls / women” (109) . Contemporary music abounds with alarmingly casual descriptions of lustful and violent activities and has had the effect of desensitizing the masses and prompting individuals to make unwise decisions.
With regard to the accusation of harmful effects, lyrics have been directly implicated as a study by “Rubin, West, and Mitchell (2001) found that fans of rap and heavy metal music scored significantly higher on measures of aggression than did fans of other musical genres” (Giles 67) . And of course it is these particular genres that have come under fire for their brutal lyrics. Thus there is little doubt as to the effects of explicit lyrics on listeners.
Thanks to the offensive material conveyed by songs, many of the evils that plague our society can be directly linked to the lyrics in music. For instance the increased incidence of sexual activity among adolescents, teen pregnancies, drug use, violence against homosexuals, women and other minority groups may be traced to the lyrical content of music. In view of the existing evidence, the pervasive effect of lyrics cannot be taken lightly as it threatens to undermine the very foundation on which society is based.
In light of the evidence outlined above, one may safely assert that the lyrics in music affect society to a large extent. In addition to their profound influence it is found that their effects can be harmful to the individual as well as society. Therefore the impact of lyrical content cannot be ignored or underestimated and further research is imperative to determine its exact nature.
Giles, David. Media Psychology. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.
Hansen, Christine, and Ranald Hansen. “Music and Music Videos”. Media Entertainment: The Psychology of Its Appeal. Eds. Dolf Zillmann and Peter Vorderer. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000. 175 – 96.
Hargrave, Andrea and Sonia Livingstone. Harm and offence in media Content: A Review of the Evidence. Portland: Intellect Books, 2006.