Bad lyrics

Do you need to worry about the music your teen listens to?

According to Olivia Mercer,* 13, kids don’t worry too much about explicit lyrics in the music they listen to. “It’s more about the beat,” she says. But parents do worry. Borrow your kid’s iPod and you may be in for a shock.

There’s no question lyrics are more explicit these days, says Cathy Wing, co-executive director of the Media Awareness Network.

It’s not easy to determine whether listening to gangsta rap or the Pussycat Dolls affects kids’ behaviour. A recent US study graded the lyrics of popular songs from least to most sexually degrading, then asked 15- and 16-year-olds about their musical tastes and their sexual behaviour. While the researchers concluded that the study suggested a link between raunchy music and sexual behaviour, it wasn’t clear whether kids were emulating the behaviour described in the songs or listening to songs that reflected their experience.

“All media that have sexual, violent, racist or degrading content should be a concern,” says Wing. “But censorship is ineffectual because children have access to media everywhere they go.”

There is an element of forbidden fruit at play here; teenagers want independence with a side of rebellion, so there’s some satisfaction in listening to music that their parents find offensive. (Remember when you blasted the Sex Pistols in your bedroom?)

Wing reassures people that a family’s values tend to win out over those of the latest hit on the radio. “Parents transmit pro-social values in all kinds of ways, and a loving, involved, stable home environment goes a long way to mediate the influence of popular culture.”

*Name changed by request.

Media literacy

A better approach than imposing an outright ban is to provide some media literacy tools. “There are some strong messages out there that we need to counter with our own,” says Wing.

You have to talk about it, she says, but first you have to listen to your kids’ music. If they’re watching videos, watch with them and talk about issues like gender stereotyping. Keep your conversation respectful and open. If you begin by saying “That’s disgusting!” the discussion won’t go very far. Instead, you might say, “What do you think that song is about?”

Teens spend a lot of time plugged in — not just listening to music, but watching TV and movies, playing video games and surfing the net. Parents can capitalize on this interest by introducing media they think are worthwhile. If you like jazz, play some and talk about why you like it. “Like eating, a media diet needs to be balanced. If kids are exposed to good-quality work that’s well written and intelligent, they’ll see inappropriate lyrics in a different context,” says Wing.

And try not to totally tune out mainstream media yourself. You may be surprised to find some real gems among the bump and grind. Lyrics that are challenging or provocative may lead to some great conversations.

If you feel your teen’s musical tastes cross the line, give him a chance to defend his viewpoint, advises Wing. Talk about freedom of expression versus censorship, and see if you can negotiate a compromise.

When you’re shopping for music, look for parental advisory labels warning of explicit content, but keep in mind the labelling is voluntary. Wing also suggests talking with store employees, who may know the CDs quite well.

Finally, be sure to give your kids some credit. When it comes to songs with racist or sexist attitudes, says Olivia, “if I don’t have the same views as the artist, I’m not going to support them. Those words are just going to make people feel bad about themselves.”