Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I have been thinking a lot lately about my music choices. A couple of years ago, mostly influenced by experiences that I had in Europe and changes in my worldview at that time, I changed my music listening from listening to a lot of oldies and "lite" music and started listening to popular/top 40/hip-hop music. This music is exciting and interesting to me because of its beat. But lately I have been thinking about the influence my music choices have had on my thoughts. Especially lately I have noticed an increase in the number of swear words that are played on the radio. The word d*** seems to be especially prevalent to the point that I have wondered if people don't consider it to be a cuss word anymore.

Why is this a concern for me? Because music is such a big influence on my mind. I know just about everyone likes and appreciates music, but my brain seems to be especially tuned to it. I have noticed, for example, when I am at work that I am always paying attention to the song that is playing as background music. When I do work on the computer I find it difficult to concentrate without having some kind of music or sound in the background. I basically always have some music going on in my head, even if I'm not listening to music at the time. When I hear a catchy song it will often stay in my head for a long time, even for a couple of days. Therefore, when I'm singing along with music in my head, if the music contains an inappropriate word, I will tend to sing that word. I don't like having those words come off my lips. Even if the word is bleeped out or blanked out by the radio station, pretty much everybody knows what the word is anyway. My mind just fills it in. Lately it seems like curse words are quicker to occur in my mind, quite possibly as a result of the increased exposure I have had to them through music.

Secondly, I have started wondering about the messages that my mind is absorbing along with the lyrics of the songs. Here are a few examples of lines from popular songs that contain messages I'm not sure I agree with, along with my paraphrases of the possible underlying implications:

"And when it's love if it's not rough it isn't fun..." -- Poker Face, Lady Gaga
(Rough sexual interaction is the best way to interact with someone of the opposite sex; in fact, this is "love".)

"Baby if you strip you could get a tip because I like you just the way you are..." -- "The Way You Are", Timbaland
(My love for you is based on your physical appearance, especially when you are naked.)

"But now we're rocking on the dance floor, acting naughty..." -- "Please Don't Stop the Music", Rihanna
(The best way to have fun is to be "naughty". Dancing and physical attraction is the basis for a relationship.)

"Hey ladies, when your man wanna go buck wild, just go on and hit 'em up style. Get your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime for all the hard times..." -- "Hit 'Em Up Style", Blu Cantrell
(When your man cheats on you, you should get revenge by spending all his money. Revenge will make you feel better.)

And so on, and so forth. There are many such messages in today's songs.

There are also some songs that are not particularly bad, but pretty much pointless. Consider lyrics like the following:

"I'm like a ringleader; I call the shots. I'm like a firecracker; I make it hot." -- "Circus", Britney Spears

"Somebody call 911, shorty fire burning on the dance floor." -- "Fire Burning", Sean Kingston

This type of song seems to be particularly catchy to my mind, and often repeats over and over many times after I've heard it.

Inappropriate messages in music are not new, neither are swear words or nonsense songs. But I have felt the need lately to be more careful about what songs I will listen to. I don't intend to force my choices onto other people. But I hereby declare my desire to be a little more choosy about the musical food I give my mind. I don't plan to quit listening to hits entirely, but I hope that I will change the station when a song I don't agree with comes along.


Laverna said...

Not to bash on popular music or anything, but it doesn't have the same depth that older music seems to have. Maybe it's because what has survived from older music did BECAUSE it had depth (and all those that didn't were forgotten).
However, in my once-music-major-now-music-teacher opinion, a lot of what you hear on the radio is very far from what I think "good" music is. Words have a lot to do with it, but also how the music is composed.
Most songs you hear today are strophic (verse and chorus) with lots of choruses that use their words to draw people in to listen to them. There is always some sort of driving, usually upbeat rhythm and a very basic (and in my opinion, uninteresting) chord structure. There's a reason why music majors will get assignments to write down these songs as ear training execises -- because the chords are so basic and repetitive, it's easy to do.
Emotion is usually pretty simple too -- you have anger and its variants (hurt, disgust, etc.) and lust (or attraction of some kind).
Compare this to the complexity in the chords and emotions of many earlier bands and even more complex classical works.
Sure, I listen to the radio, but only when I want something that I don't have to think about. When I listen to music because want to listen to music, I go for the old stuff.

ww said...

I completely understand what you are saying. I think I don't agree, however, with your implication that music must be complex to be interesting. Certainly complexity does add a dimension that allows intellectual analysis of the music along with the pure enjoyment, but I also believe that there is great musicianship in taking simple forms and making them fresh every time. The blues, for example, is a very simple musical form that, in the right hands, can be continually new and exciting. Truly great popular musicians can take a simple form and, while still remaining within the conventions of the form's requirements, give people a fresh experience. Examples of popular writers that I think do this well are Depeche Mode, Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell and B.B. King. There are some folk/popular songs that have endured much longer than many art pieces. In fact, a lot of classical music takes advantage of melodies that originated in folk music.

Besides, I've always been a rhythm girl, so the fact that popular music has a driving rhythm is a plus in my book... it's the same thing that makes me like minimalist music.

I'm not saying I don't like classical, but popular music has a special place in my heart. Perhaps it's because of my upbringing; my father came from a folk musician's background and my mother trained to be an opera singer. The way I see it, these two influences expand my view. To me, part of being a member of American culture is having an understanding of American popular music, its roots, and how it has evolved.

ww said...

One more addendum: in my post I mostly focused on the messages in current music that I find inappropriate for my own listening. But I should mention that there are some very old songs that I also find inappropriate. "Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl" is an example. It's the messages I am particularly responding to in this post, but the fact that these messages are accompanied by catchy music makes me particularly susceptible to them.

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