Inappropriate Content in Music

Pushing the boundaries for artistic expression has always been a part of popular music. However, the drive for profits may also be pushing the envelope of what is acceptable. In this section we examine some of the issues in today’s music.

Explicit Lyrics

Music hasn’t changed since the days when the Beatles shocked the world. What has changed is that popular music lyrics have become much more explicit.

Hip hop and other genres have received criticism for lyrics with graphic references to drugs, sex, violence, and hate aimed at women, minorities, gays and lesbians. Pop stars such as Katy Perry may be marketed under a “girl power” guise—but what they are really selling to their mostly pre-pubescent audiences is adult sexuality.

To censor or not to censor? This is the thorny question many parents face when their children bring home music they find offensive. Where the line is drawn is largely dependent on family values and the maturity and temperament of the child. For families with both older and younger children, parents may want to designate the more explicit music their teens listen to as “iPod only”.

With so much of this music within easy within listening – or downloading – range, discussions with children about explicit lyrics should start sooner, rather than later. It is important that adults talk with their kids about the types of lyrics they find offensive – and explain why. As children get older, encourage discussion and debate on these issues to provide them with opportunities to reflect not only on stereotyping and violence in music recordings and videos – but in other media as well.

Parental Advisory Labels

Parental Advisory Label - Explicit ContentIn 1990, the U.S. recording industry introduced Parent Advisory labels to identify music containing explicit lyrics, including depictions of violence and sex. Parental Advisory labels are printed at the bottom right of a CD’s cover; they are found in the same place in the album art included with digital downloads. [1]

For consumers, the system has its drawbacks. Companies and artists voluntarily label their products, so customers can’t automatically assume that music without a label will be appropriate for all ages. [2]

The retail industry is also inconsistent in dealing with Parental Advisory labels. Some stores have policies forbidding the sale of labeled music to kids younger than 18. A few retail chains, such as K-Mart and Wal-Mart, will not carry stickered products, while others have no restrictions to stop children of any age from purchasing CDs with advisory labels. Digital downloads, of course, have no age restrictions, though some retailers such as iTunes offer “clean” versions of songs with explicit lyrics. Generally, parents should be especially mindful of the music their children are downloading.

Critics charge that although the music industry warns parents of inappropriate lyrics with labels, at the same time it’s aggressively marketing explicit music to young people. In December 2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report showing how media industries, including the music industry, aggressively market media meant for adults to young children. The report showed that albums containing explicit content were frequently advertised on TV shows and websites popular with youth. [3]

Music Videos

Music videos are a powerful medium because they combine the energy of music with the power of visual images. While kids often don’t pay a lot of attention to the lyrics of their favourite songs, the visual images that accompany the same music on TV or the Internet have a much greater impact because they are impossible to ignore.

Many Canadian radio stations will not play music with explicit lyrics, but young children can easily access music by controversial artists by watching their music videos online.

Music videos have frequently been criticized for heavily sexualized portrayals of women:  a 2012 study found that this was common even when the musicians themselves were female. [4]

We can encourage older kids to analyze the dominant messages in music videos by asking these questions:

  1. What are the similarities between videos? What are the differences?
  2. How are the following people depicted in videos?
  • visible minorities
  • teenagers
  • women
  • men
  • parents
  • authority figures
  1. What lifestyle choices are promoted in these videos, in terms of tobacco and alcohol use, or sexual activity?
  2. Is the video an effective marketing tool for the artist?
  3. What trends in popular culture have been inspired by these videos?

Negative Effects of Music

For kids with a healthy self-image and varied interests, music probably has little or no influence on their values and lifestyle choices. However, violent, racist, homophobic or sexist lyrics in music may impact some youth: research shows possible correlations between a teenager’s preference for certain musical genres and risky behaviours. [5]

There is evidence that listening to music with sexual content in the lyrics makes teenagers more likely to start having sex earlier than their peers. [6] Music also contains a lot of commercial content, mostly in the form of product placement (both in lyrics and in videos), [7] much of which is for alcohol. [8] While research hasn’t yet shown consistent effects of lyrics or music on teens’ personalities, one study found that listening to songs with “pro-social” lyrics made teens more likely to behave in helpful and compassionate ways. [9]


[i] Cole, Tom. “You Ask, We Answer: ‘Parental Advisory Labels’ – The Criteria and the History.” NPR Music, October 29 2010.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Marketing Violent Content to Children: A Sixth Follow-up Review of Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic Game Industries. Federal Trade Commission, December 2009.
[iv] Frisby, Cynthia and Jennifer Stevens Audrey. Race and Genre in the Use of Sexual Objectification in Female Artists’ Videos. Howard Journal of Communications (23) 1, 2012.
[v] American Academy of Paediatrics. Bad rap: Can music lyrics with negative references affect kids’ behavior? Ma AAP News 2009; 30:24
[vi] Primack, Brian. Exposure to Sexual Lyrics and Sexual Experience Among Urban Adolescents. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 36, Issue 4 , Pages 317-323, April 2009
[vii] Chang, Samantha. “Product Placement Deals Thrive in Music Videos.” Billboard, November 23 2003.
[viii] Kopun, Francine. “Study Finds Rappers Promote Name-Brand Alcohol to Young Fans.” The Toronto Star, October 20 2011.
[ix] Greitemeyer, Tobias. Effects of Songs with Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, November 2009.