BILLY JOEL ONCE SAID in an interview on "60 Minutes" that he thinks of his songs as his children. He remarked that some of them go on to become doctors and lawyers (presumably the Top 40 Hits), while others grow up to be bums. I wonder if Billy believes that any of his "kids" could ever grow up to be mass murderers or terrorists.
Ever since the horrible shootings in Littleton, Colo., many groups around the country have been engaged in quasi-psychological ranting about the negative effects pop music has on teenagers. I believe that much of this finger-pointing is unwarranted, although hardly surprising. Pop music, which is a blanket term referring to rock, alternative, Top 40, metal, hip-hop, rap, goth and industrial music, has not caused the downfall of Western civilization as predicted by many critics since the mid-1950’s; but Americans like quick-fix answers to tough, murky questions, and pop music is an easy scapegoat.
I vividly remember my mom warning me as a young and impressionable second grader that I should not listen to the music of KISS and I should likewise stay away from the kids who carried lunch boxes pasted with this group’s frightening clown-like visages. At the time, I had no idea what or who KISS was, but the urgency of my mother’s voice served as a warning that I was facing something more evil than I could imagine. KISS went on to achieve immense fame, fortune and misfortune, and recently reunited, with middle-aged paunches and all, as lampoons of their former selveshardly the type of aural monster Hercules would have encountered on one of his mythic journeys.
Why did my mother feel so strongly about warning me against the dangers of pop music? Perhaps her mother and father had given her the same speech about Elvis. For three generations, parents have felt the impetus to point their critical fingers at pop music and blame it for every vice St. Paul warned about, with a few more thrown in for good measure. Parents should be concerned about the well-being of their children, but they are fooling themselves if they believe that little Billy will develop more normally if he renounces pop music and instead listens to country and western.
America has been involved in a tense relationship with pop music for at least four decades. In the late 1960’s Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson and his group of deranged followers. As this story was being investigated, the press picked up and ran with a phrase that had been written in blood on a wall in Tate’s home: "Helter Skelter." Taken from a song on the Beatles’ highly praised "White Album," it all at once became the anthem of the Four Horsemen. Similarly, in the mid-80’s the heavy metal artists Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest were put on trial for supposedly influencing teenagers to kill themselves.
In the wake of the recent high school shootings, pop music again has become a culprit. Shock-rockers Marilyn Manson, and especially this band’s namesake front man, were lambasted for inspiring the evil intentions and menacing "goth" lifestyle of the two gun-wielding teenagers. In addition to the fact that Marilyn Manson and goth have nothing to do with each other (mistakenly connecting them betrays the stereotypical musical illiteracy of the older generation), the juxtaposition of pop music with horrible crimes is sad for other reasons as well.
I have been involved in a love affair with pop music ever since I purchased my first album, Def Leppard’s "Pyromania," in 1983. This affair has continued into my four years as a Jesuit, during which time I have played drums in a rock band and written numerous rock CD reviews for a student magazine in Chicago. I do not see a dichotomy between religious life and my musical interests. In fact, through my ministerial experiences as a Jesuit, I have witnessed the hand of God at work through the interaction of teenagers and popular music. In response to the negative press pop music has recently received, I would like to highlight three positive ways popular music can affect teenagers.
The teen-age years are a time of transition from childhood to adulthood, and teenagers need to find their own identity apart from their parents and family. This is very normal and healthy, and those readers who are parents should take the time to recall just how difficult it was to gain a foothold on independence during their adolescent years. A very popular way for teenagers to establish independence is by identifying with a group of other teenagers who share their musical interests. Very often, this musical interest is combined with fashion and lifestyle changes that allow the teenagers to feel they are forging their own way toward adulthood without assistance from Mom and Dad. Parents may be disturbed by the musical tastes of their teenagers, but this is to be expected. The music most teenagers listen to in the late 90’s is not going to be well received by parents any more than it was in the late 60’s. But it serves the same purpose, allowing teenagers to form friendships with peers who share a common interest in a particular music artist or group.
Many times, while giving retreats to high school students, I have heard them remark that they will listen to different types of music depending upon their mood. When they are depressed, R.E.M. has just the right song that speaks to them; Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos know what to say to the angry teen-age girl whose boyfriend has just dumped her; Lauryn Hill’s infectious grooves are just what the doctor ordered to lighten the spirit on a lonely Friday night; listening to Limp Bizkit after a fight with their parents gives teenagers permission to be angry in a non-destructive way. It is very heartening to witness teenagers turning to music to touch their souls and help them deal with strong emotions because they feel that the music speaks to them in a way that parents, priests or teachers cannot at that moment. teenagers often associate pop music with special events in their lives, as manifested by the numerous compilation "mix" tapes many teenagers make by collecting the music that meant a lot to them during a particularly enjoyable summer or while they were involved in a special relationship. teenagers can use these musical souvenirs to help them recall these enjoyable experiences.
The first two points touched upon aspects of teenagers’ spirituality, but I refer here to the use of pop music in a specifically spiritual context, such as a retreat. My experience conducting retreats for teenagers has helped me to understand what a powerful tool pop music can be for tapping into spiritual themes such as darkness/light, death/resurrection and love in a way teenagers can understand and to which they can relate. Pop music can be used at the beginning and end of a retreat talk to provide the proper punctuation to the spiritual matter being conveyed. I am not referring solely to acoustic guitar, bubble-gum lyric pop music, but all types. Since teenagers do invest a lot of time listening to music, building community around music and associating strong emotions with particular music, it is not difficult to bring God into their experience of music. Communicating the power of God’s love and companionship by theoretical means to a group of teenagers is not a simple task, but when they can listen to music in a group setting and feel the deep emotions associated with the music, teenagers can be helped to connect their desires and passions with God; and, I hope, God can become more of a real presence in their lives.
Teenagers who are troubled are going to listen to pop music just as much as teenagers who are not, so attempting to make a direct correlation between teen-age violence and music is problematic at best. Pop music is not predicted as an agent of mass destruction in the Book of Revelation, and Marilyn Manson is no more responsible for the Littleton shootings than Joan Osbourne’s sappy oeuvre "(What if God was) One of Us" is responsible for effecting mass conversions to deism. teenagers are going through difficult transitions and definitely need guidance from their elders, but demonizing the music they listen to is not a constructive way to provide support.
David E. Nantais, S.J., is studying philosophy and theology at Loyola University Chicago.