Should musicians be held responsible for their lyrics?


Fact Box

  • In 1999, the National Institute on Media performed a content analysis of the top 10 CDs, revealing that each CD contained at least one song with sexual content, and overall, 42% of the songs on these CDs had very explicit sexual content.
  • A study of college students found that listeners’ moods and thoughts were influenced less by lyrics and more by the instrumentation.
  • While movie ratings are mandatory, “explicit” ratings for music are entirely voluntary, and there is no clear definition of “explicit.”
  • The First Amendment has been interpreted to protect artistic freedom as part of free speech.
  • From the 1972 US. Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior to the 1993 American Psychological Association report “Violence and Youth,” the official consensus has been “The greatest predictor of future violent behavior is a previous history of violence,” rather than the influence of the art to which we are exposed.

Cornelle (Yes)

Artists must have a certain amount of creative freedom to express themselves effectively. That also applies to people who don't necessarily consider themselves 'artists'--there's a little bit of an artist in all of us. However, we live in a society where we must consider how exercising our freedoms affects those around us. That consideration becomes even more critical when a person or group has the ability and/or desire to influence thousands and, potentially, millions of people--especially when they are, in large part, young consumers.

There's a difference between music that critiques or discusses violence in our society and music that makes it 'sound cool' to commit violent acts. Artists that produce music glorifying murder, violence, and rape should be held morally responsible for how their lyrics influence their listeners. 

A recent survey by Common Sense Media found that the average American tween (ages 8-12) listens to approximately four hours and 44 minutes of 'entertainment screen media' per day, while teens (ages 13-18) listen to about seven hours and 22 minutes each per day. People, in general, are impressionable--even more so in those formative youth and teenage years. Artists who exploit that demographic to build a fanbase and ultimately a source of income should consider how questionable lyrics affect the development of these fans. Violent music doesn't automatically make a peaceful person violent. However, such music can encourage people to give in to violent impulses, and artists should be held responsible for the violence and other behavior that their music can invoke.

Ivan (No)

One starts down a questionable path when asking artists to self-censor their work, whether it’s lyrics or any other art form. Morality is built into the artist’s sensibility (we all have developed some moral sense), but it may not coincide with mainstream morality. To ask the artist to self-censor is to ask them to impose a moral sense on their work that isn’t their own. The artist’s interior morality would already be at work in the artist’s composition. Any additional censoring would be external rather than internal. If the artist is held morally responsible, then the set of morals we impose is societal morals rather than the artist’s own, which sets a dangerous precedent. The very nature of art is to push the boundaries of society, to stretch the limits of conventional morality. If we ask artists to sanitize work based on traditional mores, we at best produce artists who create bland work, and, at worst, we set the stage for art that reinforces some of society’s worst impulses or that puts the artist on trial for being unconventional.

It’s important not to promote violence in any form, but to ask the artist to be morally responsible is to open the door to censorship. We live in a pluralistic society in which we navigate a wide range of moral sensibilities every day. We have to decide how we imbibe both the best and the worst moral messages we encounter, but we can’t ask others to change their ways of thinking simply to make us feel safe.

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