How does music effect today’s youth?

Bono, the lead singer of Dublin-based rock band U2, asserts that ‘music can change the world because it can change people (Morreale 295),’ and indeed it does – both positively and negatively. Commanding the potential to transcend all boundaries of communication, music is one of the world’s most influential cultural forces. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow[1] states, it is the ‘universal language of mankind (Morreale 294).’ Those, then, that can successfully harness its power can influence the beliefs of individuals significantly, and there is one group of individuals that is often affected in particular: adolescents. Helping them to ‘create a personal identity’ as they provide ‘information about society, social and gender roles, and expected behaviour’ (Martino Exposure) in their work, musicians can become a young person’s role model. On the website LAyouth, for instance, 18 year-old Nancy Berabe writes that Bob Marley’s reggae music is what she looks for ‘every time I need some uplifting,’ motivating her ‘to overcome the tough times I encounter each day (Music).’ Indeed, after being reprimanded for not attending school once when she was 13, Nancy says that it was Marley’s lyrics: ‘There you are crying again / But your loveliness won’t cover your shame’ from ‘Stand Alone’ that made her ‘reflect’ (Music) on her actions and thus ‘encouraged’ (Music) her to attend classes each day. The changeable impact musicians can have over adolescents subsequently brings about a degree of responsibility in regard to what message(s) they communicate through their lyrics and music videos – a prominent issue in British society today. However, before examining the UK’s contemporary music culture (which shall be done later on in this article) it is important to understand in what ways music has previously affected adolescents of the modern world[2] as it will provide a further insight into the subject of this article: the power of contemporary music over the UK’s youth[3].

The power of music in the western world: 1945 – 1989

The origin of modern music arguably began with a man born in Tupelo[4] on the 8th of January, 1935, who grew to become ‘the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music’ (Victor 598): Elvis Presley. When he sparked the inception of the Rock ‘n’ Rollrevolution with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in January 1956, the first of his 18 US number one singles, Elvis Presley could never have envisioned the profound impact his music would have on the rest of the world. Influenced by African-American blues musicians such as B. B. King and Ivory Joe Hunter, his distinct sound (along with his knee-swinging, leather-jacketed image) signified a step away from the more mainstream swing musicians of the time, altering both the music industry and American society irrevocably. ‘He bought together American music,’ Rolling Stone magazine states, ‘from both sides of the color line and performed it with a natural sexuality that made him a teen idol and role model for generations of cool rebels (Kemp Elvis).’ Consequently, he attracted younger, more zealous fans than any other preceding male artist in the 20th century – even Frank Sinatra, and his societal impact gave the American youth ‘a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture (Jezer 281).’ Elvis Presley’s music, then, is perhaps the first major instance in recent history of music empowering adolescents on a widespread scale. Forging a future away from the country’s wretched experiences in the 1940s, a decade that included World War II and the Great Depression, he became the slick-haired symbol of America’s youth, and his overwhelming popularity among them foreshadowed similar fan phenomena later on in the century – Beatlemania, for instance.

During the early 1960s in the UK, The Beatles[5] broke into the UK’s music scene with their first commercially successful single: ‘Please Please Me,’ and by the end of 1963, just six years after John Lennon first formed the skiffle group that would eventually become the most successful music act in history (Costello 100), they had gathered an unprecedented number of dedicated young fans – mostly screaming teenage girls. Like Elvis Presley’s rock ‘n’ roll revolution, one of the genres in which The Beatles’ music style was initially rooted, The Beatles had a remarkable impact on its younger listeners – they even made basin haircuts seem stylish for some time. In the UK, they represented part of the younger population’s dismissal of the ‘prejudices and uptight attitudes’ (Hecl 8) of the country’s patriarchal generation, a Victorian-age generation that had previously oppressed any major outbreak of youthful spirit, and the band’s lyrics sometimes reflected the social revolution of the Swinging Sixties. In ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ for instance, a narrative song from the album ‘Revolver’(1966), Paul McCartney sings about a spinster who has a ‘face that she keeps in a jar by the door,’ and he challenges Eleanor Rigby’s conceit, a characteristic stereotypical of the prudish Victorian period[6], pointedly asking: ‘Who is it for?’

By 1964, when the Beatles were enrapturing American teenagers into fits of euphoria as they embarked on the US, the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, then 22 years-old, also broke into the country’s music industry, an artist who successfully used the influence of his folk-inspired music as a vehicle for societal change, notably the US Civil Rights Movement. His many protest songs, such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’[7] became some of the movement’s most famous anthems, successfully capturing the growing frustrations of the United States’ repressed African-American population. With Dylan publicly requesting that senators and politicians ‘please heed the call (for racial equality)’ in another celebrated Civil Rights anthem, ‘The Times They Are a-Changing,’ the movement instigated the passing of several crucial, society-changing laws (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965). These laws paved the way for African-Americans’ improved social freedom, granting them a new opportunity for self-expression without fear of punishment for doing so. Inevitably, perhaps due to the fact it was so influential during their determined fight against racial prejudice, one of the primary means through which they expressed themselves following the Civil Rights movement was music – particularly adolescents. During the 1970s, originating from African-American communities within New York such as the Bronx and Brooklyn, rap music emerged as an important part of the hip hop sub-culture that empowered young members of its community with ‘a mode of alternative cultural style’ and thus ‘a potent form of cultural identity’ (Best & Kellner Enculturation). However, with the arrival of Run-D.M.C, De La Soul and MC Hammer – some of the most critically and commercially successful hip-hop acts of the 20th century (who were all young men when they emerged onto the hip hop scene), the late 1980s was the period in which rap music’s popularity truly began to prosper. De La Soul’s debut album, ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ (1989), was described by some critics as a ‘hip hop masterpiece’ (Serilla 3); then it was voted ‘Album of the Year’ (De La Soul) by NME magazine – an award that arguably marked the breakthrough of young African-Americans’ music into the popular music industry just decades after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

The power of contemporary music in the UK:

Whether it is rock and roll, folk, pop or hip-hop, therefore, music has consistently been a changeable force for young people in the modern world. Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Bob Dylan demonstrate how music can inspire change among adolescents. As 17 year-old Mark Riviera says: ‘popular opinion controlled my ideas until I heard Bob Dylan sing, “Gonna change my way of thinking/ Make myself a different set of rules” (Music That Inspired Us). However, most evident in how young African-Americans channeled their societal freedom into the hip-hop movement, adolescents can equally inspire change in music. With reason, then, one can assume that the same reciprocal relationship between music and society still exists today, subsequently influencing adolescents in a similar fashion to how they have been in the past. Rather than embracing their influence over them, though, some musicians (such as Tulisa Contostavlos and Flo Rida) in the UK’s popular music industry abuse the power their music has granted, advocating feckless behaviour to their adolescent fans through their music. Regardless of whether they do so intentionally or not, Tulisa and Flo Rida both promote binge drinking in their respective singles: ‘Live It Up’ and ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’ – one of the UK’s most dangerous (and common)[8] nightlife activities. In the short term, for instance, it can substantially increases the risk of some heart conditions, damage to the oesophagus and brain damage – with evidence suggesting that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to its effects (Medical 4); and in the long term, a UK study found that binge drinking in adolescence was associated with increased risk of health, social, educational and economic adversity continuing into later adult life. (Medical 4) How, then, do Tulisa and Flo Rida manage to advocate such hazardous behaviour to their listeners, particularly with most of them likely to be adolescents?

By definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, binge drinking is ‘the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time.’ Consequently, there is an unequivocal correlation between the definition of binge drinking and some of the lyrics and video content of Tulisa’s ‘Live It Up,’ the second single taken from her debut album. Throughout the song, Tulisa, a 24 year-old singer-songwriter who originally found fame with the Camden-based hip-hop group N-Dubz, sings on three occasions: ‘put something in your cup/ Too much is not enough,’ a lyric that, along with the song’s opening line: ‘We should pop more champagne this year,’ firmly suggests alcohol is something that can be consumed excessively. The image of a young woman being held upside down as she drinks from the spear of a beer keg then provides evidence of alcohol being consumed in a short period of time. The Urban Dictionary defines this stunt as a Keg Stand: ‘the act of guzzling alcohol in an inverted position in massive quantities, with onlookers cheering.’ It also explains why the young girl, who does indeed appear to be surrounded by cheering onlookers, is upturned in the video: ‘there is a common myth that by being positioned upside-down during the consumption of beer, the alcohol will reach the brain more quickly (though this is anatomically imimpossible given that the beer must reach the stomach first).’ In September 2012, Tulisa described herself as ‘an inspiration for broken Britain (Glennie and Thomas Tulisa pays tribute)’ – yet how can she be an inspiration whilst she advocates such an irresponsible attitude towards alcohol? Her portrayal of binge drinking as a socially acceptable behaviour could have a changeable impact on how adolescents regard alcohol consumption. It might even encourage them to binge drink themselves, a serious issue that already exists: young people in the UK have ‘some of the highest levels of teenage binge drinking, drunkenness and alcohol related problems in Europe (Smithers UK Teenagers).’ By singing ‘put something in your cup/ Too much (alcohol) is not enough,’ Tulisa is promoting a serious societal issue among adolescents, therefore.As one mother of a teenage boy says: ‘Tulisa has the enviable power to promote the message that you don’t have to drink to have a good time – yet she doesn’t, sadly. Her lyrics and music video (in ‘Live It Up’) are simply not appropriate; nor are they helpful for a parent, like me, who is trying to teach a young adult to drink responsibly.’

Like Tulisa, rap musician Tramar Dillard is one of the most commercially successful artists in the UK’s music industry today, recently outselling even the likes of Eminem, Jay-Z and Kanye West[9] – three giants of the hip-hop industry. More commonly known by his stage name, Flo Rida, he is perhaps the most notable male artist in popular music to advocate binge drinking to adolescents in the UK today. His lyrics and music videos frequently romanticize alcohol in a similar fashion to how gangster rap sometimes romanticizes violence[10], portraying it as a relatively harmless substance that only instigates more enjoyment. In one of his most successful songs, ‘Club Can’t Handle Me,’ the shot of young men and women raising over ten champagne bottles in the air can be seen; then he raps about how he ‘can’t stop now, more shots, let’s go.’ When asked about the video by MTV, Flo Rida responded: ‘if you’ve ever dreamed about having the biggest party of your life, “Club Can’t Handle Me” definitely represents that. (A) lotta energy. (A) lot of diamonds, (and) ice sculptures (Bhansali Flo Rida).’ However, whilst the ice sculptures can be seen for just one fleeting moment at the video’s very beginning, alcohol features on nearly twenty occasions – most of which are shots of young individuals ‘outta control’ dancing with opened bottles of champagne in their hands in a launderette they have invaded – and there is no sign of what is usually considered to be the appropriate vessel out of which to drink champagne, or any other alcohol for that matter: a glass. Like the shot of a young girl performing a Keg Stand in ‘Live It Up,’ then, this scene suggests to its audience that alcohol can be consumed excessively, a substance that has been described by one former government drugs adviser (cite) as the ‘most dangerous drug in the UK by a considerable margin’ – even ‘more harmful than heroin or crack’ (Boseley Alcohol). Ofcom, the UK’s regulatory authority, states it has an official duty ‘with regard to all programmes, including music videos (whatever the genre), to: ensure that under-eighteens are protected; and enforce generally accepted standards…to provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion of offensive and/or harmful material (Broadcast 7)’. Surely, then, ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’ and ‘Live It Up,’ both easily accessible and uncensored music videos that suggest binge drinking does not cause violence, unprotected sex[11] and vomiting, are harmful material to children and young members of the public?

In April 2011, Ofcom deemed Flo Rida’s lyric: ‘You want some more baby? I love the way you do it cos you do it so crazy’ in ‘Turn around (5,4,3,2,1) (Broadcast 5)’ as ‘unsuitable’ due to its breaching of rule 1.3[12]  – even though ‘it does not contain an explicit sexual reference, it ‘is ambiguous in its meaning, and is unlikely to be understood by children as specifically referring to sex’ (Protecting 11). In Tulisa’s ‘Live It Up’ and Flo Rida’s ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’, though, there is nothing ambiguous about the implied meaning of the contentious issue they promote. In the lyrics: ‘Put something in your cup/ Too much is not enough’ and ‘Can’t stop now, more shots, let’s go’ they are specifically referring to drinking alcohol – excessively. Ofcom only considered ‘Turn around (5,4,3,2,1)’ as inappropriate because the quoted lyric is ‘combined with clear, sexualised images (for example, women in sexual positions) (Protecting 11)’. In ‘Live It Up’ and ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’, there are two specific instances of clear images that advocate binge drinking: the shot of a young girl performing a Keg Stand, and the scene of young people dancing with opened bottles of champagne in their hands. Both songs’ lyrics and music video content, therefore, surpass what Ofcom regards as inappropriate in other contentious aspects of music videos. There seems, however, to be no significant concern surrounding the issue of inappropriate portrayals of alcohol in most of Ofcom’s recent studies. In August 2011, for example, they researched into parents’ concerns on pre-watershed programming, including music videos. Staggeringly, whilst terms relating to sexually explicit content feature over seventy times, binge drinking is not mentioned once in the 26-page study.

The concern of parents about sexual content in music videos should not be criticized, however. Ofcom should be deservedly applauded for the effort they have made to purge such content from mainstream music videos, too. In this instance, the issue is that parents simply do not seem to be aware of the fact their children are still being exposed to equally disconcerting matters. Excessive amounts of alcohol often appear alongside images of scantily clad individuals in music videos. Parents watching them may not take note of the alcohol, focusing instead on the more noticeable sexual content (which might explain the surprising lack of concern from parents about alcohol abuse in Ofcom’s research). For a child or adolescent who watches the video on several occasions, though, the images of alcohol being consumed excessively may well be inadvertently noted. With a recent survey of secondary school head teachers finding that ‘nearly 70% believed that drinking by pupils increased over the previous 5 years, predominantly in the under 16 age group (Adolescents 4),’ this should be a perturbing notion to parents indeed. However, perhaps a more perturbing notion to consider is: what motivates Tulisa and Flo Rida to advocate binge drinking to adolescents? Though they may not advocate it with the specific intention of causing harm indirectly to adolescents, Tulisa and Flo Rida both sing about binge drinking deliberately; they know the subjects of alcohol and clubbing will appeal to adolescents. Indeed, according to one university student in the UK, 18-21 year olds go out clubbing ‘several times a week,‘ which has also become increasingly popular among party-going under-18s with the introduction of ‘kids’ events at nightclubs across the country[13]. Tulisa and Flo Rida use their advocacy of binge drinking as part of a quasi-marketing strategy, therefore, aiming to maximize the chance of their records being purchased by exploiting popular subjects among young people – their target audience. Of course, neither Tulisa nor Flo Rida are the first musicians to publicise subjects in their songs that will appeal to their listeners – think of how many pop songs that have explored the theme of love throughout the last few decades, for instance. They are some of the first musicians to advocate such dangerous activities as binge drinking to a young audience, though.

Presumably, then, neither Tulisa nor Flo Rida realise the socio-political impact they can have over their young listeners; otherwise they would not promote such feckless behaviour, one that can induce paralysis and comas – even death. Outside of the music industry, though, both Tulisa and Flo Rida use their influence over young people commendably. In April 2012, for example, Tulisa publicly supported the NSPCC’s campaign to raise awareness for self-harm in the younger generation (Children’s Charity), and, after he invested his own time and money into Miami’s National Football League, Flo Rida was described as ‘a real role model’ (Rose Flo Rida Give Back) in August 2012. Clearly, both musicians are indeedaware of their socio-political power over adolescents, making their promotion of binge drinking shamefully inexcusable. The UK’s Institute of Alcohol Studies has singled out young people to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol advertising. It also states that young people ‘live in environments characterized by aggressive and ubiquitous efforts encouraging them to initiate drinking and to drink heavily.’ These statements are unsettlingly similar to ‘Live It Up’ and ‘Club Can’t Handle Me.’ How are their lyrics and music video content not aggressive efforts to encourage young people – vulnerable young people – to initiate heavy drinking? By portraying alcohol as a cool and harmless substance that is fun to consume excessively, they effectively adhere to the same issues that the Institute of Alcohol Studies addresses in alcohol advertisements. Why are they not subsequently subjected to the same rigorous restrictions?

Conclusion: use societal power for positive societal change

Whilst the integrity of Tulisa and Flo Rida should be rightfully questioned after reading this article, neither of them should be vilified by the media for their advocacy of binge drinking to the UK’s adolescents. They have been employed as two specific examples of a serious issue for which several other artists in the UK’s music industry can also be held accountable. In March 2010, for instance, British rapper Tinie Tempah had a UK number one single with ‘Pass Out,’ a song that contained the lyrics: ‘Let’s have a toast, a celebration, get a glass out/ And we can do this until we pass out.’ In October 2011, also, Taio Cruz released a song named ‘Hangover’ (featuring Flo Rida, ironically) in which the British singer-songwriter boasted: ‘I got a hangover…I’ve been drinking too much for sure…I got an empty cup…Pour me some more…And I can drink until I throw up.’ The problem of popular musicians promoting binge drinking to the UK’s young generation extends further than Tulisa and Flo Rida, therefore, and the issue of binge drinking itself extends further than the music industry. ‘Family history of substance abuse,’ ‘Impulsive personality traits’ and ‘Depression or anxiety’ (Nature 13) are some of the individual factors that the Institute of Alcohol Studies believes to cause young people to binge drink. Caused by broken homes and broken communities across all social classes, these factors are governmental matters in which music is of little importance. However, music is one significant aspect of the institute’s final factor: ‘Positive expectancies about the effects of alcohol’ (Nature 14). Each musician that portrays alcohol to be a harmless substance contributes towards this factor, helping to strengthen the ‘culture of intoxication’ (Nature 7) that has emerged among adolescents in the UK over recent years. Today’s musicians in the UK music industry need to realize how much influence their lyrics and music videos have over young people – they should not use it to promote hedonistic and harmful behaviour. Like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the African-American hip-hop movement, they each have the power to invigorate the younger generation. Musicians, therefore, should use their societal power in the same way we are encouraged to drink alcohol: responsibly.

Bibliography & Endnotes

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