As they grow older, kids express independence in a number of ways, and embracing musical tastes that leave their elders perplexed and perhaps even a little scared is one of the most obvious methods. Musical rebellion is deeply ingrained in our culture, from such classic acts as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, to punk rock in the ’70s and glam rock and heavy metal in the ’80s, to rap and hip-hop in the ’90s. Indeed, it seems like every generation does their best to find some form of music that leaves preceding generations concerned, if not scared and/or pissed off.
Not surprisingly, those preceding generations have often responded with claims that the music of rebellion spells disaster for society. Be it Elvis’ gyrating hips, rock n’ roll’s tribal rhythms, or gangsta rap’s violent lyrics, adult guardians have always found something cautionary in the music that “the kids” are listening to. But can music really have such negative effects? Can it really lead to increased delinquency? According to a recently published study from the Netherlands, it can. Researchers studied a group of 300 youth over the course of four years, and compared their musical preferences with their behavioral patterns, and came to this conclusion:
The results showed that early fans of different types of rock (eg, rock, heavy metal, gothic, punk), African American music (rhythm and blues, hip-hop), and electronic dance music (trance, techno/hardhouse) showed elevated minor delinquency concurrently and longitudinally. Preferring conventional pop (chart pop) or highbrow music (classic music, jazz), in contrast, was not related to or was negatively related to minor delinquency.
The study is certainly thought-provoking, but it also seems problematic. Even if you just look past the ol’ “correlation does not equal causation” issue, there are questions about the study’s methodology. If a kid is prone to delinquent behavior, is that a result of listening to goth or hip-hop, or is it due to broader socio-economic issues, such as income or education levels, or family stability? To their credit, the researchers indicate that further study is necessary:
Future investigations should also discriminate between different youths. First, research should consider those who express their liking of deviant media as part of a longer chain of problem behaviors that persist throughout individuals’ lifetimes. These include, for example, exhibiting oppositional or deﬁant behavior in childhood, listening to “problem” music in early adolescence, or engaging in minor delinquency in middle and late adolescence that extends into persistent adult problem behavior. Second, research needs to consider other young people for whom listening to music, which is often annoying to grown-ups, is energizing, comforting or simply fun, and functions similarly as adolescent-limited problem behavior; that is, as a test of personal and social limits.
These things—testing a broader range of youth, making distinctions for those who listen to music because it’s “energizing, comforting or simply fun”—strike me as incredibly relevant, and might cause some surprising reassessment.
And then there’s the study’s concept of “unconventional” music. For example, the researchers included jazz as an example of music that doesn’t contribute to delinquency. However, when jazz first emerged, it was criticized for doing that very thing. An article in the August 1921 issue of Ladies Home Journal had this to say about jazz:
[I]t is somewhat of a rude awakening for many of these parents to find that America is facing a most serious situation regarding its popular music. Welfare workers tell us that never in the history of our land have there been such immoral conditions among our young people, and in the surveys made by many organizations regarding these conditions, the blame is laid on jazz music and its evil influence on the young people of to-day. Never before have such outrageous dances been permitted in private as well as public ballrooms, and never has there been used for the accompaniment of the dance such a strange combination of tone and rhythm as that produced by the dance orchestras of to-day.
Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.
The human organism responds to musical vibrations. This fact is universally recognized. What instincts then are aroused by jazz? Certainly not deeds of valor or martial courage, for all marches and patriotic hymns are of regular rhythm and simple harmony; decidedly not contentment or serenity, for the songs of home and the love of native land are all of the simplest melody and harmony with noticeably regular rhythm. Jazz disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad.
And yet, jazz is now considered one of the more cultured, “highbrow” (to borrow the reseachers’ term), and adventurous forms of music — a far cry from how it was originally perceived as “the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer”. This sort of cultural evolution is why I often take alarming criticisms of various forms of media—like a genre of music—with a grain of salt. Culture is always evolving, and what might’ve been offensive even just a decade or two ago may often seem like no big deal now, and vice versa. In other words, our society survived the Jazz Age; I’m sure it’ll survive today’s “unconventional” music, too.
That is not to say we should be lax when it comes to our cultural intake, or simply go with culture’s evolutionary flow. Certainly, we ought to be thoughtful concerning the cultural forms and artifacts that we allow into our lives. After all, the Bible admonishes us to hold fast to that which is honorable, pure, and lovely, and to be wise about what we let our hearts and minds dwell on. That’s doubly true when it comes to our children, who may lack the necessary judgment to properly evaluate the surrounding culture.
But looking at a simple correlation and jumping to gloomy conclusions strikes me as unwise. The world is far more complicated than that—human beings are far more complicated than that—and when it comes to figuring out why kids are the way that they are, there may likely be a host of factors at play beyond whatever’s on their iPod at the time.