In an interview Marilyn Manson was asked "Does this music cause you to do the things you do ?". Manson with his usual eloquence responded: "No, I think we cause the music to do what it does". This quote struck me as interesting because it reminded me of something said by another legendary musician – a man who though never a shockrocker himself had signed the first record deal for the first true shock rocker (Alice Cooper).
I'm talking of course about Frank Zappa. In 1984 when the Parents Music Resource Center began the first major push to have music censored and labelled three musicians came to testify at the congressional hearing on the matter. Twisted Sister front-man Dee Schneider, country's golden-boy John Denver and Frank Zappa.
I am quite familiar with the events there as I'm a big Twisted Sister fan and have read up extensively on Dee's life – including his testimony, ultimately looking up the full transcript – which is how I came to read Zappa's testimony. Frank Zappa said a very interesting thing during his testimony. He denied the basic premise of the PMRC that music was a major influence in youth thinking and behavior and suggested the exact opposite. According to Zappa – the rise of teen suicides were not promoted by songs about suicidal feelings at all. As Zappa put it, the music our children listen to is indicative of what is on their minds. It is an expression of the feelings they feel and what they are thinking about. Songs about suicide do not cause teenagers to become suicidal. Teenagers thinking about suicide cause songs to be written about suicide.
Denver would, in his testimony go on to say almost the exact same thing – in even clearer terms. This came as quite a shock to the PMRC who had expected Denver with his clean cut image to be testifying in favor of their labeling schemes – and instead he too attacked the very idea and argued convincingly against it.
And all this because Tipper Gore's American conservative mind couldn't cope with her little girl hearing Prince sing about female masturbation.
But why are parents and pop psychologists so eager to believe that music, movies and more recently video games are primary influences on how people (especially young people) think and behave ? We know all the reasons they give for it are false, lots of scientific studies have repeatedly shown it to be utterly false. So why does it remain so popular ? Why do we want to believe it ? I always held to the explanation that it was due to an unwillingness, even a fear, of personal responsibility. We don't want to be responsible for our own actions, so in order to be allowed to blame "influences" we readily accept it to be an excuse for others, the moreso those we don't want to believe could do bad things just from being bad.
There is probably some truth to this, but lately – I've swung to believe that a much more crucial aspect is involved in this desperate desire to believe this, a desire so strong that people who preach the virtues of free speech will actively lobby for censorship when the material in question is the kind of music their children enjoy. It's because of what parenting means. Parents in general do not believe their job is to raise children to think for themselves – but rather to raise children that think in the way their parents and society want them to. In short, they want to absolutely control the minds of their children.
They believe that the way to do so is to control all the information the child has access to, by controlling the incoming data they hope to control the resulting thoughts. This leads inexorably to the belief that thought in young people is controlled or at least heavily influenced by the informational stimulation they receive. This may be partially true of very young children whose minds are only partially formed, but by puberty there is simply no evidence whatsoever to back this up. The tendency to dress up like people on television does not come from a desire to emulate television – but from a desire to be a leader among their peers. They know their peers will emulate the same sources, and by trying to be ahead of the curve – they can gain social status. It's peer dynamics, not media influence – but it looks exactly like media influence.
The truth is that the more attempts parents make to control the minds of teenagers and young adults – the more likely they are to suffer depression, the rate escalates even higher with increasing IQ. Smarter kids get sadder a lot easier – especially if you restrict their ability to find the intellectual stimulation they desire, restrict the nature of that stimulation to anything that they didn't vet themselves or restrict their ability to partially express emotions through art that speaks to those emotions.
This is where the crux of it all lies however. Art never dictates emotions, despite even many artist's delusions of grandeur that it does. Art speaks only to the emotions we already feel (or at least felt recently enough to vividly recall). Art does not change our feelings, it does not create emotions or any other effects. What it does is speak to our thoughts and feelings, it expresses what the artist felt and if we can identify with his feelings we then have an effect of empathy and can express our own feelings through the artists expression of hers.
This is all a very fancy way of saying: nobody listens to music they can't find something they already identify with. Most music that is decried as violent really isn't – much of it is in fact overtly anti-violence and is expressing the effects of violence through depiction. Just like a bload-soaked battle-field painting in a museum is more likely a lament on the horror of war than a celebration of war. A great many metal bands in particular have deal with similar themes. Iron Maiden's historical songs like Aces High, Paschendale and Run to the Hills spring to mind.
Other times it's a metaphor. Folk Rock often sings about war, glory and honor – but it never actually believes in promoting any of it. It talks about mythology and a time that the listeners well know never truly existed. Nobody seriously thinks that listening to Manowar will turn somebody into a Thor-worshiper or cause them to raid towns. Instead the underlying message is about standing up for yourself. About challenging the things that are wrong in the world and trying to change them for the better. It's about not accepting the misery and suffering around us -but battling against the system that creates is.
And most of the time: it's a joke. Like a B-grade 1950's horror movie, nobody is really scared by the gruesomeness as much as laughing at the sillyness. It's cartoon violence. Designed to shock and scare anybody who isn't in on the joke and cause a sense of cameraderie among those who are. All of shockrock is exactly this (taken to extremes) but so is much of the rest of it.
Hardly any metal bands are actually in favor of violence and in fact metal bands have a long and proud history of anti-war activism, bands like Disturbed and System of a Down are particularly active with that at the moment but it's a tradition that goes back at least to the days of Led Zeppelin and even the Rolling Stones.
It's any or all of these things (depending on the example) - but it's never, ever an attempt to cause anybody to act in a certain way. In fact the very idea of trying to control youth behavior at all is antithetical to the very idea of rock'nroll. I'm not so sure about pop music, pop music forms part of pop-culture which I do believe has a control-element in it but that's exactly because it's not art – it's marketing. It's all one gigantic sales-pitch. Right down to what brand of sneakers Justin Bieber is wearing. It's a giant corporate advertisement.
Rockn'roll is never that, rockbands hate the idea of "Selling out" and complain when bands act that way. They hat e authority and control and the only thing most rock musicians would fear more than being controlled would be to actually control anybody else. Everything that it has always stood for is about challenging authority, about thinking critically for yourself. It's intensely individualistic, groupthink has no place there (though from outside this can be hard to spot – as there is a subtle mockery of it prevalent throughout the surrounding culture and you have to be in the culture to recognize it for the deliberate sham it is).
Coming back to the opening point then. The teenager who hung himself with Adam's Song on an endless loop was not driven to suicide by Blink 182. He was already suicidal. The song expressed and spoke to the feelings he already felt. It helped him deal with it better. It's my sincere that without the song, his suicide would have been sooner than it actually was. The song didn't save his life perhaps it came too late, perhaps the expression just wasn't enough, he probably needed treatment for clinical depression (most suicide cases do – emotional expression only takes you so far), but I daresay it made his passage a little more peaceful (for himself at least) than it would have been without it.
Ultimately – the real question is how many kids didn't do drugs because of a song ? Didn't kill themselves because a piece of music let them cope with the feeling that was driving them toward it ? These are questions you can never answer – it's impossible to prove a negative. You could ask – but you'll never a get a true response, human recollection (especially of emotions) is not a scientifically reliable measurement.
So where does that leave us ? I believe it brings us to this: trying to control what our youth thinks is impossible. They will think and feel what their own minds lead them to, the music and movies and books they choose will express what they are already thinking and feeling, not influence it. Give up on the idea of controlling them through controlling their choice of music, and the drive to do so goes away. Instead, I come to the same conclusion as John Denver, Frank Zappa and even Marilyn Manson did (two of them were, at the time they said it, parents of teenagers): listen to the music your children listen to, to all of it. Even if you don't enjoy it much, listen and try to understand.
Not to judge it, but because it will tell you what your children are thinking, and feeling. It will let you look into their souls. And then you can do something all too few parents ever truly try: you can genuinely communicate with them. Instead of trying to herd their thoughts and feelings you can discuss them. Help them cope with dark things and sadness – much better than you could before because you can have actual empathy for it – and help them grow on their emerging strengths, in the same way.
There can be no true communication without empathy. The music your children listen to, the movies they watch – that expresses what is on their minds. What school and life and the news are making them think and feel. Study it, understand it as best you can, and you'll know your children better. You'll know their fears and their joys, their sadness and their pleasures – and you can communicate and offer guidance and advice with true empathy. You can lead them, rather than herd them – and that will create kids who grow up to be the kind of citizens we really need in the twenty-first century.