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Popular song lyrics contain sex, alcohol and no regrets

It's all about tonight.

At least that's the message being sent in popular lyrics these days. A close analysis of the top 20 songs on the 2011 Billboard charts reveals little about long-term commitment. There are almost no direct references to fidelity. There is a lack of a family element.

And there are no references to regret.

Popular song lyrics are having commitment issues. Studies have shown that references to sex, drugs and alcohol are not only becoming more blatant, they are affecting listeners. Technology has made access to music, lyrics and video easier than ever. At the same time, attempts at "shock value" are pushing boundaries. With experts warning of serious consequences, it is becoming increasingly important for listeners to be aware of the messages coming through their headphones.

Lyrics analysis

According to a content analysis done by Brian Primack, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, references to sexual activity in lyrics are common, and degrading sexual references are more prevalent than non-degrading sexual references.

Primack analyzed Billboard magazine's top songs of 2005 with a complex coding process to determine degrading and non-degrading sexual references. In the study, called "Degrading and Non-degrading Sex in Popular Music: A Content Analysis," he found that 103 of the 297 songs referenced sexual activity. Out of those, degrading references occurred 65 percent of the time, whereas non-degrading lyrics occurred 36 percent of the time.

Additionally, songs with references to degrading sex also were more likely to include references to substance use, violence and weapons.

In an analysis performed by the Deseret News, nine of the top 20 Billboard hits of 2011 contained an overall theme of sex and explicit sexual references throughout the entire song, including Katy Perry's "E.T.," Rihanna's "What's My Name?" and Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger." The top 20 songs contained at least 40 references to sex or a sexual act and more than 50 references to a short-term hookup. (Counts were made each time a chorus repeated.) One example is Pitbull's "Give Me Everything," which reads, "Tonight. I will love, love you tonight. Give me everything tonight, for all we know, we might not get tomorrow."

Those 20 songs also contained between 30 and 40 references to either alcohol, drugs or violence. Alcohol references were especially prevalent in Pink's "Raise Your Glass." Violence was prominent in "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People, which talks about a boy named Robert finding a gun in his father's closet and warning other kids they "better run, better run, faster than my bullet."

Conversely, the Deseret News' analysis also found the songs contained more than 80 words of affirmation, including Perry's "Firework" and Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are."

But overall, there were only two direct mentions to family in the top 20 and three mentions of some type of long-term commitment, such as Mars' "Grenade," where he says he would do anything for his lover, including catching a grenade, putting his hand on a blade and jumping in front of a train.

Blatantly Obvious

Jane Brown, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, has dedicated 30 years of her life to studying the effects of media on adolescents.

She said popular music has always been about love, sex and romance, referencing Cole Porter's 1928 classic "Let's Do It," which begins, "Birds do it, bees do it." But she has also seen music becoming increasingly explicit.

Primack agrees.

"In today's world, there is less left to the imagination," Primack said. "There was a tendency in the past for references to drug use or sexual activity to be more hidden."

Primack used the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" as an example, with its purported use of the title as a reference to the drug LSD.

"In today's music, when we do content analysis, the messages are much more obvious," Primack said. "This may be because there is so much competition today that artists need to be shocking and obvious to be noticed."

As an example, he used Perry's "Last Friday Night," which is clearly about excessive alcohol use.

Primack said it's easy to have access to songs that were once labeled "explicit." Young people have immediate access to lyrics and music videos with the Internet, and it's easier for them to listen to the song over and over. With YouTube or iTunes, listeners can not only access the music, but view the video and lyrics and have the opportunity to repeat the song as much as they want all in one sitting.

A common defense

So is there any substance to the argument "I only listen to the song; I don't listen to the lyrics"?

"I think that a lot of the influence of popular music messages can be subconscious," Primack said. "For example, they often give young people a sense of what is normal, what is desired or expected from them even if they are not understanding every word. These messages are getting across whether or not the people who are listening to them realize it."

Primack conducted a study one year after the aforementioned, in 2009, with other researchers called "Exposure to Sexual Lyrics and Sexual Experience Among Urban Adolescents," where 711 participants were exposed to 14.7 hours of music per week, with one-third of those participants being previously sexually active. Comparing those with the least exposure to sexual lyrics and those with the most, those with the most were twice as likely to have had sexual intercourse.

Those who had not yet had sexual intercourse but were in the highest range of exposure to lyrics "describing degrading sex were nearly twice as likely to have progressed along a noncoital sexual continuum." In this case degrading music means the lyrics contain references to degrading sex.

Primack is the first to state that the research doesn't mean that when someone hears something, they immediately do it. Exposure to degrading music is not the only contributing factor to sexual activity. What the research has shown, he said, is that degrading music does change normative beliefs and sexual behavior. Thus, it's something people need to be thinking about, Primack said.

Brown also participated in a study where 12- to 14-year-olds were interviewed about their "sexual media diet." Over the course of two years, those who had a heavier sexual media diet were twice as likely to have sexual intercourse.

Other studies have been done about musical lyrics' effects on mood, aggression, behavior and violence. As far as mood is concerned, a 1994 study located in the American Psychological Association database called the "Affective Impact of Music vs. Lyrics" states that "lyrics appear to have a greater power to direct mood change than music alone and can imbue a particular melody with affective qualities." In a 2006 study called "Music and Aggression: The Impact of Sexual-Aggressive Song Lyrics on Aggression-Related Thoughts, Emotions and Behavior Toward the Same and Opposite Sex," researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, found "male participants who heard misogynous song lyrics recalled more negative attributes of women and reported more feelings of vengeance than when they heard neutral song lyrics. In addition, men-hating song lyrics had a similar effect on aggression-related responses of female participants toward men."

In another study, conducted in 2003, on violent media called "Exposure to violent media: The effects of songs with violent lyrics on aggressive thoughts and feelings," Craig Anderson and other researchers found college students who heard a violent song were more hostile than students who heard a similar but nonviolent song.

Words from the recording industry

The Recording Industry Association of America does not dispute that music containing these themes is everywhere.

"Children have access to the media in ways their parents never imagined. In that sense, teenage rebellion is easier than ever before. This media access scares some parents because of the sexually explicit themes, violence and strong language so readily available," states its website.

The statement argues against any form of censorship, but acknowledges that informed parents are the place to turn when deciding what children should listen to.

"All music is not always appropriate for all ages. The music industry takes seriously its responsibility to help parents determine what is and is not appropriate for their children," said Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, on its website. He then explained the creation of the Parental Advisory Label (PAL).

Currently, putting any label on a record is a decision made by individual record companies and artists.

"The RIAA and its member companies take the PAL Program very seriously and continue to update the PAL Program to account for new music delivery methods online and through wireless services. Further, artists appreciate that this is a voluntary program which, instead of seeking to censor their words, permits them greater freedom of expression while still providing them the opportunity to help parents and families make informed consumption decisions," according to the RIAA website.

The Parental Advisory Label is neither a statement that the song is appropriate for certain listeners or a definite statement that those without a label do not have references to violence, sex or drug abuse.

According to the industry's website, it is used to note that parental discretion is advised, for marketing purposes and to tell listeners whether or not there is an edited version.

A case study, a possible solution

Holly Daley, a 16-year-old sophomore from Colorado Springs, Colo., listens to a lot of music. Her average listening time is about three hours per day.

She likes Perry's "Last Friday Night."

"I like that it's a party song," Daley said. "I like to listen to it when I'm ready to get pumped up."

Still, she knows it's about drinking and doing illegal things, and that "it's not really appropriate."

"It's not really something a 16-year-old should be listening to, really," Daley said.

These insights are something Primack said could be the answer to decreasing risk behavior.

"We aren't interested in censorship because we don't think that is central to a democracy ... I think what is more the answer is media literacy," Primack said. "If we pretend that we're going to be reducing young persons' exposure, our heads are in the sand."

His solution includes giving parents and young people the tools to analyze and evaluate all media messages they see around them. For example, when young people hear a popular song that has messages about and glorifies substance abuse, they understand exactly what they're hearing.

Primack said that if schools help children understand poetry, they shouldn't stop there. Students should learn to interpret song lyrics, as well.

The teen-aged Daley said she looks up lyrics often and is often surprised at what she sees. Usually, the radio edit is a lot more clean. She decide whether or not to purchase the song based on the content, and sometimes she chooses not to buy it.

"If it's too vulgar, I don't want to listen to that," she said.

Daley said she feels most songs are pushing kids to have sex and trying to ruin the family unit. This is an example of what Primack called an "empowered consumer" — one who goes through analysis of a song, and doesn't buy into it.

"I think everyone's affected by music," Daley said. "It's going to make you feel a certain way and that's the goal of a song: to make you feel a certain way to make you connect with the artists. That's what sells their music."