- - Wednesday, April 18, 2012


“Music is the most decisive factor in one’s upbringing. It is above all rhythm and attunement that sink deep into the soul and take strongest hold upon it.”

- Plato, “The Republic”

While the Internet has changed much about music, one thing that hasn’t changed is its popularity and cultural impact. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2009 the average American youth listened to music for two-and-a-half hours per day.

Recently, I conducted research on popular music over the last 65 years, counting the swear words and references to drugs, violence and sex in the top 10 songs of every year since 1946.

I was unprepared for how crass popular music has become, especially in the last 10 to 20 years. Music from the 1990s and 2000s makes the most risque songs from the 1970s and ‘80s seem almost tasteful.

For example, one of the crudest songs from the 1980s was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” which topped the charts in 1982 and includes lines like, “There’s nothing left to talk about / Unless its horizontally.” But this relatively mild sexual reference was less explicit than songs from the 1960s, like the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” which tells about a “gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis who,” as Mick Jagger recounts, “tried to take me upstairs for a ride.”

In their time, the Rolling Stones did more than raise a few eyebrows. My mother, a child of the 1960s, tells me how her father, outraged after hearing the song, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” smashed a Rolling Stones record.

But since the musical revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, music has become increasingly offensive, especially regarding sex. Moreover, it has made references to drugs and alcohol with increasing regularity.

By the late 1990s, popular music had reached unprecedented levels of sexual vulgarity. The top song from 1998, “Too Close,” by the group Next, exemplifies the downturn. The song refers to a lusty encounter between two dancing partners. The male in the couple opens by singing, “I wonder if she could tell I’m hard right now?” He goes on to say: “Baby when we’re grinding I get so excited / How I like it / You’re making it hard for me.” His female dancing partner responds with: “Step back you’re dancing kinda close / I feel a little poke coming through on you.”

In the last decade, however, popular music has grown even worse - much worse, in fact, only slightly ameliorated by some slightly cleaned up versions for broadcast radio.

The top 100 songs of the 1970s contained 55 obscene references. In the 1990s, this number rose to 168. But in the 2000s, it rose to a staggering 598 - an increase of 360 percent from the previous decade.

In 2003, two songs demarcated the beginning of a new era in popular music.

The rap artist 50 Cent claimed the top song of 2003 with “In Da Club.” The song is chock-full of crude lines like, “Look mami, I got the X [ecstacy] if you into takin’ drugs / I’m into havin’ sex, I ain’t into makin’ love.” Others can’t be published in a newspaper.

The rap artist, R. Kelly, released the No. 2 song from 2003 with “Ignition.” His rap includes the lines: “Girl, please let me stick my key in your ignition,” and, “We got the s— bouncin’ / We goin’ up and down / And we smokin’ and we drinkin’ / Just thuggin’ it out.”

One often thinks of the 1960s and ‘70s as a cultural milestone and a revolutionary era, but the last decade should also be seen as an historic period in the shifting landscape of our culture.

Respected thinkers have frequently identified music as one of the most powerful forces impacting individuals and societies. Unlike literature or art, music can be used to rapidly change the mood of one person or a stadium filled with thousands. Music’s power is known to any dance club owner or orchestra member, any student who uses it to increase productivity or any runner who needs a boost of energy.

More than two millennia ago, Plato wrote about the power of music to mold societies and the individuals within them. He believed that the influence of music worked slowly and insidiously on people - changing them almost imperceptibly from the inside out. He wrote: “All it does is to make itself at home little by little, until it overflows ever so quietly into people’s character and pursuits. From these it emerges, grown larger, into their dealings and associations with one another” (“The Republic”).

So in addition to recognizing popular music’s negative trajectory, perhaps we should seriously consider the extent to which music impacts humans. This reflection, though, does not have to be entirely melancholy, for if music can expedite the decline in social mores, it can just as surely resurrect them.

Beethoven remarked that “music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” Thomas Carlyle said, “music is well said to be the speech of angels.” And Nietzsche wrote, “without music, life would be a mistake.” Take these words how you will, but the heart of the message is clear: Music matters; it changes people.

So start your own musical counterrevolution. If you’re feeling saucy, break a few records, throw something in the fireplace, give expression to your wild side, but do it to move the scales in the other direction - away from the drivel that is infecting the airwaves today and back toward the “speech of angels.”

Victor Haug conducts research at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he is a recent graduate.

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