The Art Reflecting Society or Society Reflecting Art Debate: Controversy Over Lyrical Content in Popular Music

With all the outrage recently over a certain radio show host's insensitive comments, and now the resulting look at what impact music (specifically rap) has on society's youth, the debate as to whether art reflects society or society reflects art seems to be once again of mainstream concern.

The issue of what effect certain "questionable" music lyrics have on society seems to rear it's head every so often. There is always a new genre/artist under the gun as to whether the lyrics are "questionable" and having a negative impact on society or not. I seem to recall reports of a similar controversy over the supposed drug ridden lyrics of the 1960s and 70s. It is certainly hard to argue that songs like J.J. Cale's "Cocaine" (Later covered and popularized by Eric Clapton) and the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" are about drug use, as they state it quite openly both lyrically and in their titles. You can easily debate that both of these songs are promoting drug use, but I personally, would not agree and would say that they are more songs about drug use, than directly promoting it. There are hundreds of other songs that have been criticized as promoting drug use, including the Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", while others have been referred to as promoting devil worship, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Both of these songs are more cryptic lyrically and so can probably be interpreted a thousand different ways. There was also a fair amount of controversy over the rather openly explicit and yet obviously ironic oriented lyrics of Frank Zappa. Zappa's music is quite obviously social comment, and yet there was/is still controversy due to the content.

There are plenty of songs that can be openly considered "questionable" depending on your level of conservativeness and how you interpret the lyrics. Some songs may be easily considered controversial, while others may only be interpreted as such.

In the end, no matter what a song says or is accused of saying, the question really is, does the music scene reflect society's current climate, or does society reflect music's current trends?

You can easily debate either side.

Music Effecting Society

Music is certainly one of the farthest reaching media formats in the world, and it is also the one of the first major media format to be taken to heart by the youth culture. Music marketers know this and so often the youth market is the targeted market to push new music, new artists and new albums.

The problem with this, is that the youth are still developing socially, are often looking to find their personality and are often quick to look up to artists in the mainstream who are portrayed as having glamorous lives. In this way it is easy for a young person to associate the imagery, the lyrical content and the personae displayed in music as who they would like to be. These celebrities are successful, rich and most importantly "cool" and accepted by society. What kid doesn't want (at least a little) to be part of that? Especially during their awkward years where they are looking for a group to fit in with?

In this way, questionable lyrics may be having a bad influence on the youth by giving them role models that are not necessarily portraying the best morals, might be sending overly glamorized ideas about certain scenes, or might simply be discussing serious issues in a way that might be easily misinterpreted by someone.

Society Effecting Music

All art has to be crafted by artists, and all artists are members of society. There art is always going to be in some way influenced by the society they are a part of. Musicians are no exception and so it makes sense that songs would reflect the society in which they were written.

Just like all writing has a context, so does all artwork, including music. This context, when taken into account when interpreting a song's lyrics can change their meaning drastically both for better or worse. In this perspective, songs become something of snapshots of a particular time period in human history and the history of that artist as their context defines what they mean and paint an accurate portrait of what was going on in that artist's life at that time.

Here, society is one of the main motivations behind what a musician writes and so their songs are simply reflections of the current social climate. When considering the fact that people are, at least partially, in control of what music becomes popular by buying it, (although we should also take into account that marketers only promote music they think will sell and so what is popular already determines what will be popular), the popular albums are really just a product of society.

Which is Right?

In this debate, it looks like both sides might be right, further complicating matters. I think it is obvious that when we are growing up we all are influenced by some parts of society, pop culture and what we see around us and these influences coalesce to form our personality. At the same time, because artists are also just people, they too have been influenced by the society around them and in turn so has their art or music.

When it comes to music and art though, I will always remain a firm believer that it is about interpretation and the choice of how to interpret them is ours, meaning that the influence any given song's lyrics have on us, is up to us. A song could be life changing, or it could be just another song... we might see it as an ironic piece of artistic social comment, or an offensive display of vile explicitness.

I've been listening to supposed drug and satanism promoting music for years, do I think they have had a negative impact on me? I don't think so... I have yet to actually do drugs or worship the devil because of a song I listen to. I'd probably claim that this music has actually made me a better person.

I say it all the time, Music, art and pop culture are purely what we choose to make of them... nothing more and nothing less.

This viewpoint seems to take some of the sting out of this debate although certainly doesn't solve it. There will always be further questions about censorship, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the nature of artwork; questions that can spark heated debates, more controversy and enough talk to make your brain hurt.

Maybe some songs are sending the wrong message, but that certainly doesn't mean we have to accept that message, live by it or even listen to it.

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