How Song lyrics that glorify drinking affect adolescence consumption levels
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Music Made Me Do It

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the effect of musicThis post was originally published on April 21, 2014.

The Atlantic recently ran an article about a study that was done on the influence of popular music on young people—more specifically, how song lyrics that glorify drinking or mentioning alcohol brands affect consumption levels in adolescence. It makes sense, of course, that there’s been an impact: teenagers have longed looked to music icons to show them how to dress, behave and feel and some of us are slow to mature out of it: I am decades past my malleable teenage mind yet I still look to Rihanna for fashion tips (but not dating tips, yikes!)

Music, Movies and Unrealistic Expectations

It reminds me of a short story I once read by the great Joyce Carol Oates. It was about a young girl, Connie, who falls prey to an older, predatory man. He terrorizes her but in the end is able to convince her to leave with him by threatening to hurt her family. I read that Oates was inspired to write it by a news story of the times—The Pied Piper of Tuscon, who was a serial killer in the 1960s that targeted high school-aged girls. But I’ll never forget reading a criticism of the piece that theorized that Connie’s susceptibility to a sociopath was due to her being the first generation to be influenced by music instead of fairy tales.

But it’s not just the music of our formative years that sends us messages we carry with us into adulthood. It was January of 2008, some time past midnight, when I realized why none of my relationships thus far had worked out. I was having one of those fights with my boyfriend where he was asking what was wrong and I couldn’t find the words to express what I was feeling in a way that sounded reasonable (look, women are deeply emotional characters and our feelings are often too complex for a simple man to comprehend). Finally he yelled at me: “What is it that you want from me?” And then it was clear: I wanted him to woo me with a grandiose gesture I couldn’t ignore. I wanted was him to stand outside my window with a boom box on his shoulders and serenade me with “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.

I later learned that I suffered from The Lloyd Dobbler Syndrome, a common disorder in women of my generation where my expectations of men will never be met because of the too-high bar set by Lloyd Dobbler, the dreamy teenage romance hero of the 1980’s movie Say Anything. It also struck me, nearly 20 years after the movie came out, that I would never be the recipient of the kind of emotionality promised by the histrionic lyrics of Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” That is how long it took for me to understand the message I had been sent and had been conducting my life by the gospel of was fantastical garbage.

Impossible to Gauge the Effects

Still, studies like the one mentioned above do raise the question: if music (and movies and pop culture in general) is as influential as it appears to be, is there a way to protect children from receiving certain messages before they’re emotionally ready to decipher what it is they’re hearing? Since we can’t control what’s out there, is there a way we can control how it’s digested? And how much of an impact music ultimately has on teens and using is difficult to determine. As Anna David wrote on AfterParty last year:

Much has been made of how Cyrus promotes the use of molly in her hit song, “We Can’t Stop.” And honestly, part of me wants to tell the Puritanical Police to calm down, to explain that this girl making one maybe reference to this drug (because she has claimed she’s singing the word “Miley”) doesn’t cause kids to think the drug is cool and go out and do it. I mean, Jay Z references Ambien and MDMA in “Empire State of Mind” and no one’s accusing him of getting America’s teens on drugs, right? 

Then I remember being around 16 years old and hearing the song “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash. My friends knew the song: they were singing along. I’d never heard it before and I liked it. More relevantly, I thought it was cool—it was clear to me by the way they were singing it that this was a song that cool people knew and sang along to. And I felt excited by the lyrics—I knew cocaine was bad, everyone knew cocaine was bad but, as a burgeoning addict, the idea of something bad was titillating if not downright appealing. The irony, of course, is that “White Lines” is considered an anti-drug song. But I didn’t seem to take in the bits about selling your soul or the explicit, Nancy Reagan-esque order, “Don’t do it.” I just knew it was about cocaine and that was exciting.

Did Grandmaster Flash cause my cocaine addiction years later? Obviously not. Would I have become a cocaine addict had I never heard that song? Absolutely. Yes, that song normalized and even somehow glorified the drug for me in a way that I guarantee seeped into my consciousness. But it wouldn’t have had I not already been highly interested in the topic of cocaine.

Parents Gotta Police

In the end, perhaps the best way for parents to handle their concern over the impact music is having on their kids is to stay as involved as possible in their lives. Teenagers are scary people: old enough to have sex and drive cars but too young to know the dangers in either one. But when I was in high school, it was my friends who had close-ish relationships with their parents that were saying “no” when I was saying, “Yes, please, more.” So maybe it’s time we take the onus off the melodies and on the moms (and dads).

Photo courtesy of Julio Aprea (Steven & Joe) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.