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How Music Shapes Social Norms

By Hazel Buckingham

“If you were a space alien trying to define music, you would define it as humans manipulating the way in which air molecules hit someone’s eardrum. Somehow, that air – when moved and made to hit the eardrum in tiny subtle ways – can make people dance, cry, have sex, move across country, go to war and more.”

- Moby

When you try to break down music and explain it ‘objectively’ as Moby does, it seems unbelievable that human behaviour and emotion can be manipulated by it in ways that have consequences of such a magnitude as going to war. It’s hard to dispute though, as I’m sure we can all recall a rush of some kind of emotion at the sound of a particular song – a feeling that many have tried across humanity for centuries to put into words.

Music is something that is around us so constantly that often we need to actively pay attention to it in order to notice it. That’s not something new to us in the world of 2020 though, where a lot of us agree that new media technologies have forced us to become “smart, sophisticated, media-savvy consumers'' and the impact of media, such as music or music videos, on us and our behaviour is not something we need to worry about. Maybe back in the beginning of the ‘counterculture’ in the '60s people were impressionable by music, but not anymore. We’ve grown wiser, and we know better. Right?

Well, due to ethics surrounding experimental research on humans, we don’t have a single study to ‘prove’ an answer either way, and it would be nigh on impossible to single out one form of media from any other to investigate its specific effects. It is curious though to review a policy statement released as far back as 2009 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It stated music, music lyrics and music videos can have a significant impact on children and youth, going as far as to request paediatricians be up to date on the latest research on the subject, discuss music preference and exposure with their patients and parents and help these parents and patients become ‘media literate’ – as this would help protect the youth from the effects of these media forms.

This policy statement doesn’t stand alone, in fact you’ll find a range of academic research dating decades back making similar claims and recommendations – some more extreme than others. There’s been particular work done by feminist academics on the role of music and music videos in normalising violence against women and rape culture, specifically linking music videos to harmful myth-based beliefs. In fact, there’s probably a little voice inside your head right now that says “mmhm…we know this…” as you read, and that’s what we’re here to talk about.If we know it, how does it still have such an impact? Consider this paradox.

Over the lockdown of coronavirus, many people on Facebook have been posting “10 albums that influenced them growing up.” An artist that seems to keep popping up in this trend is Eminem, which seems to reflect a culture of teenage girls who memorised his albums verbatim and used this as their ‘party trick’ to break the expectation that their headphones would be blasting TayTay 24/7. I will openly admit that I was one of these teens.

Seemingly harmless, right? Until the next part is laid out for you. One night, Eminem performed his song Kim at a concert. This song is particularly violent and derogatory towards his ex-wife Kim, something that a lot of Eminem’s earlier work is known for. At this particular concert, he abused a blow-up doll representation of her on stage as he sung, while the crowd cheered him on. Kim was present at this performance, and later that evening, attempted to take her life.

Yet a survey conducted by Teen magazine a few months later found that 74% of teenage girls would date Eminem.

And this isn’t an isolated occurrence. One only needs to look to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines which peaked at number one in more than 25 countries, or how the same ex-partner of Rihanna’s who we demonised in 2009 for his violence towards her reached number one on the charts again in 2019.

It’s not just about violence either, and things get even messier where the lines between music, music lyrics and music videos, well…blur. Recent research published in the International Journal of behavioural Medicine demonstrated that per capita, adolescents in the UK receive approximately four times more alcohol and tobacco related messages from popular music YouTube videos than adults do.

We think ourselves rather immune from big business and corporations as we ‘pull’ the content we want, rather than them pushing it on us.

This ranges from the artists as brand ambassadors for certain products (like Robin Thicke and a particular cognac that apparently we know we want) to the normalisation of alcohol use for both celebration and as a coping mechanism. It gets even worse when we consider the extension of social media and the avatars celebrities can create – how can one separate dearest TayTay’s Instagram post of her with a glass of wine in COVID isolation, suggesting it was the best way to pass the time, from her music that blasts out of our headphone speakers? More and more so, we cannot separate the music from the artist or their actions and we must recognise the impact that these seemingly harmless messages are having on both our youth, and on us.

This impact is sometimes termed our ‘super peer’, suggesting that content depicted in both music and its videos may influence our social norms, as well as our decision-making, thinking processes and behaviours. This becomes particularly relevant to those that suggest music is merely a reflection of our feelings, or that we come with preconceived ideas to the music – if every interaction with music has the ability to affect our psyche, don’t we truly need to take heed of that policy statement’s warning and ensure we do become music (and media) literate?

We’ve become more skilled at using technology, absolutely. But has the required critical thinking accompanied us?

We think ourselves rather immune from big business and corporations as we ‘pull’ the content we want, rather than them pushing it on us. We curate our own unique identities in a way like never before with this proliferation of content, is it actually the corporations that are becoming smarter, more sophisticated, and media-savvy?

If music does have the impact Moby suggests, or that you have felt, what opportunities for change lie there? Perhaps as we move towards creating our new normal, music and music videos are a secret weapon in our arsenal that we can harness, if we start paying critical attention to what we are listening to. After all, these are messages we memorise word for word, that get stuck in our head for days on end, and unite us the world over.


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