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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Is pop music bad for your health?

By Norman Lebrecht / February 20, 2008

There is a rather scary lecture coming up at the British Psychological Society next week under the title Is Pop Music Bad for Young People? Answers, please, on one side of a bus ticket.

The assumption in the popular press is that music with violent lyrics leads to violent crime, and the louder and longer the exposure the greater the likelihood of anti-social behaviour. See a hooded youth on the upper deck shaking and swaying to a noise that leaks from his headphones and many passengers will be on their guard.

This precautionary view of popular music has taken root with politicians and officials who are quick to ban artists they consider a risk to society. The charismatic and articulate rapper Snoop Dogg, for instance, was prohibited in 2006 from re-entering the United Kingdom after a scuffle at Heathrow airport. He remains on the exclusion list, despite assurances of good behaviour, for reasons that may have more to do with his myth than his music.

‘I think you got so many old people there with old ways,’ said Dogg the other day; and I think he may have a point. His entry ban was set aside by a judge last month only for the Home Office to appeal for its reinstatement on public order grounds. Dogg is also barred from Australia and several other countries as a potential threat.

Amy Winehouse was excluded from entering the US to collect her hatful of Grammys on account of her well-charted history of drug use. It may be safely assumed that no-one in Washington expected Amy to import a truckload of white powder, rather that she was banned as a negative role model.

Whether the content of certain kinds of music and the conduct of certain artists should be restricted as a public menace is a serious question for the BPS to be contemplating, along with the wider issue of whether loud music with violent, sexist and racist lyrics – defined by sociologists as ‘problem music’ - is detrimental to the mental health of vulnerable young people. If it is, there would be a strong argument for censoring pop lyrics and imposing stricter broadcast and border controls.

That case, however, rests more on prejudice than hard evidence. A forthcoming study from Oxford University Press, The Social and Applied Psychology of Music, surveys a swathe of international research on the subject. ‘It’s a game of two halves,’ says Professor Adrian North of Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, the study’s co-author and next week’s BPS lecturer. ‘If we ask a general question: are people who listen to violent music more likely to commit offences, the answer would be pretty damning. But if we look for proof to restrict it, there is simply not enough.’

Just how difficult it is to show cause and effect between listening to problem music and committing violence is demonstrated by a test case from Nevada, where two unhappy youths, aged 18 and 20, spent an afternoon drinking beer, smoking weed and listening to the Judas Priest album, Stained Class. After a while, they jumped out of a first-floor window, ran to a churchyard and tried to commit suicide with a shotgun. One lad died, the other had his jaw blown off. Their parents sued Judas Priest, and lost. In the range of triggers for the tragedy, the album - despite such lyrics as ‘he had enough’ and ‘do it!’, was no more culpable than the state’s gun law and cheap beer.

Several research projects show that heavy metal fans are likely to have a low regard for women, while rap listeners have a higher tendency to aggression. An unpublished study quoted by North and his co-author David Hargreaves calculates that teenagers who listen to a lot of to rap music are three times more likely to hit a teacher. They also drive faster and have unsafe sex.

What’s missing, though, is a smoking gun. There is little to demonstrate that social music causes social problems and much to suggest that violence in music is simply a truthful reflection of existing urban tensions. It needs to be heard and understood rather than censored and restricted.

Its widely assumed link to crime and self-harm is widely misleading. One study reveals that UK hip/hop and rap fans have a lower arrest record than country-and-western listeners. ‘People who like heavy metal are over-represented in groups that commit suicide,’ warns North. ‘But so are those who watch opera.’

There is an abundance of sexual and racial stereotyping in problem music, along with bucket-loads of abuse. But there is nothing to show that this changes attitudes in listeners who are not previously inclined to aggression. On the contrary, says North, some radical rap lyrics actively promote inter-communal tolerance by ‘spreading awareness of equal rights issues.’

Popular music serves as an identity badge for certain social groups, a badge that is worn with great pride. Its bonding mechanism can, North argues, ‘be helpful to vulnerable teenagers’, regardless of any anti-social message it may proclaim. He commends genre radio, such as the BBC’s Asian Network, as being particularly helpful.

As to young people emulating their idols, current research suggests a shift in fans’ attitude from hero to celebrity, indicating that Snoop Dogg and Amy Winehouse admirers are about as likely to adopt their lifestyles as Elvis followers are to binge themselves to death on cheeseburgers. The link between rockstar conduct and social disorder is more imagined than real, which is not to say it can safely be ignored.

When is pop music bad for young people? ‘As the father of a small boy, I’d be very worried if he listened a lot to the violent stuff,’ says North. The solution, though, is not prohibition and artist bans. What is needed is more public discussion, more awareness of the facts on the ground. ‘The problem music debate,’ says the leading scholar in the field, ‘will ultimately be resolved in newspapers.’

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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