‘Climb on board... we’ll go slow, and high tempo... Hold me hard...’ my 9 year old cousin sang exuberantly, proudly, in the middle of my garden at a family gathering.
Ordinarily, I would have been alarmed; had I too not just heard the widely-played pop song from which those lyrics are taken. Had I not heard it played nigh-on back to back through almost every single pop music radio station for several months now. The radio-edited version of Zayn’s Pillowtalk cuts the explicitly sexual language within it, yet that which is implicit remains rife - as in fact does that which is very much so on the linguistic borderline. And this issue isn’t of course exclusive to Pillowtalk, or Zayn, it is inherent in - and almost saturates, most modern pop music and culture.
These pop, or “popular” songs are naturally played everywhere, they aren’t found underground or as part of niche age-restricted adult genres. They aren’t even played with consideration to a “watershed” to avoid, or at least limit exposure to children - who are particularly impressionable and vulnerable to any of the potentially negative impacts of the content. This music has very much become the norm, and is played in cars, living rooms, shopping centres and even in both primary and secondary schools on occasion. We have become accustomed to its language and the themes within its subtext, as well as those which are often, in fact, quite blatant. Either we are subconsciously turning a blind eye (or blocked ear) to the content, and are singing along in ignorance of it - or, perhaps more worryingly, we are fully aware of the references being made yet are completely unperturbed by them, as if passive naturalisation is cause enough for legitimisation. As children are being bombarded with these tainted tunes; engaging with, and owning them, they are gradually accepting the content within them as being normal, and are thereby becoming desensitised to what have traditionally - and rightly so, in my opinion - been accepted as mature subjects.
What I find particularly difficult about this is the role, or lack of one, played by parents, who through either of the two reasons aforementioned, offer absolute consent and have no problem with their children singing these lyrics. I’ve also heard the same 9-year-old cousin of mine sing about a girl with ‘messed up hair’ and ‘feet still bare’ who was ‘standing there in [her] underwear’ with his ’T-Shirt from the night before’ courtesy of the radio tune Toothbrush, by DNCE, which describes ‘stay[ing] the night’ and ‘sweat[ing] like a sauna’. Twelve-year-old girls are singing about wanting to ‘Bite that tattoo on your shoulder/Pull the sheets right off the corner/Of that mattress…’ from the currently chart-topping Closer, by The Chainsmokers. In fact, the problem extends further than just the music itself; often, the accompanying music videos - which are equally accessible - also exude seductiveness and near-nudity in ways which although may not be explicit, are also overflowing with implicit sexuality, and that which is very much so borderline. Miley Cyrus licking a hammer did “break the internet” somewhat, and cause some level of controversy (interestingly, because of the dignified expectations we had of her due to her fictional role as Hannah Montana; “real-life” people can be as imprudent as they like) but at the end of the day, the Wrecking Ball video’s still there, and children are still able to watch it. Former Spice Girl Mel C has also described such content as ‘vulgar’ and lacking ‘dignity’, saying ‘It's a shame that a talented, successful woman expresses herself in such an overtly sexual way’, when explaining why she has banned her daughter from seeing the provocative images or videos of pop superstar Rihanna, due to fears about ‘how it affects young girls’. With all this in mind, it’s stifling to think that neither an overwhelming majority of parents, nor society at large seem to take issue with this inherent sexualisation, or at least exposure to sex of children.
This, however, is not necessarily reflective of our natural feelings and responses in “real life”, I am reminded of a particularly humorous scene from the movie Bad Boys II where a father enacts a short, intense role play with his friend to interrogate, threaten and frighten a young man away from any naughty ideas when taking his daughter out for a first date. Now this is a hilarious scene, from a comedy film - fictional, exaggerated and intended to be funny, but “behind every joke, there is a little bit of truth”. There is undoubtedly an inbuilt primal and instinctive need to protect our children and young people from sex, and sexual experience before reaching an “appropriate” age; with the ability to make sensible perceptions and decisions, and be properly aware of one’s actions and their consequences. Nevertheless, we seem to ignore, or not realise that the barrage of sexualisation torpedoing our lives is inevitably going to have an impact upon what we, and young people in particular, perceive as “normal” or what “everybody does”, and influencing ideas about, and knowledge of what are mature, adult subjects.
Interestingly, we as a society would be outraged if radio stations and other public music outlets unwaveringly released overtly explicit content, such as a rap song riddled with four-lettered profanities, derogatory terms and references to crime or violence. N.W.A’s F**k the Police springs to mind; a song so brazenly explicit that to hear it on daytime TV, the radio or over a shopping centre tannoy is unthinkable. This is despite the fact that the song covers the crucial topics of racial injustice and police brutality - arguably making it, therefore - a deeply educational, four-minute History lesson which speaks volumes about 1980’s America and is in fact still incredibly relevant today. Now don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be much happier to hear 9 and 12 year olds singing about “popping shots from glocks”, but the point is that we condemn such content without hesitation, as it’s clearly inappropriate for children to be hearing, engaging with and replicating - regardless of what might even be the unique benefits of listening to NWA, and the valuable insights it might provide. Why, then, do we not also condemn what is comparatively “empty” pop music that has 9 and 12 year olds singing about “getting down and dirty”? I can’t help feeling that an ever-increasing societal net movement towards “liberation” has brought with it a malignant sexualisation, to its severe detriment. With it are many negative impacts that we allow to seep into our music - and pollute what is naturally a very fluid and inclusive part of our modern culture.
I can hear angry voices shouting in my head already, ‘It’s just music!’, and this is very true; in the same way that Kill Bill or Scarface are “just films” but if we saw a child being allowed to watch either of the two we'd find it clearly reprehensible. So, why is it okay for a child to effortlessly get a front row seat in what is essentially an auditory burlesque show? An academic study from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, concluded that ‘Popular music can teach young men to be sexually aggressive and treat women as objects while often teaching young women that their value to society is to provide sexual pleasure for others.’ This study implies that an almost obsessive focus on sexuality in the popular music that teens listen to habitually can eventually cause many to judge their personal worth solely on a sexual level. This might lead dangerously towards a myriad of psychological issues comprising of poor body image, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse, to name just a few. Consequentially, what is “just music’ and has become accepted as “the norm” really does carry great potential for having extremely harmful effects upon a generation that just wants to enjoy the beauty of music.