Profanity in music


Profanity is an expression of verbal aggression that is likely to elicit imitative aggression and inappropriate language. Profane words are usually considered grossly offensive and a public nuisance. Profanity in music occurs through verbal means and can be learned vicariously through verbal expressions of the models and celebrities in the mass media. The verbal expression can be more easily imitated than physical aggression (Drewett 3). As a result of profanity, the viewers become desensitized thus leading to a greater acceptance of profanity in both media and real life. Profanity in music leads to dissemination of messages that are unrealistic, inaccurate and misleading. The messages are readily accepted as fact by the young population (Koops 52). Much of the arguments about the effects of the media have focused largely on the television media while ignoring music (Kirsh 12). However, music also has a significant effect on the youth behavior. A case to substantiate the claim is a kid who reacts by changing their emotions when the parents tune car radio from their favorite channels. Therefore exposure to such songs that portray misleading messages is detrimental to the society’s norms. The paper herein argues against profanity in music focusing on the negative effects of profanity in music in the present society. The paper will also address the positive attributes of profanity in music to indicate which side has more weight clearly.

The youths are the major consumers of the products from the music industry. The youths usually want to differentiate themselves from the social norms thereby forming a custom referred to as the youth culture (Kirsh 31). Youths have rapidly changing cultures, behaviors, and ideologies. Demographically, youth comprises of individuals less than 30 years of age (Drewett 3). The youth often distinguish themselves from the adult society and mainstream culture through slang, fashion, behavior, and dialect. The members particularly center themselves around a specific item, idea or music. An understanding of the dynamics of the youth culture and the youth themselves is necessary for the topic under discussion (Kirsh 20).

The present changes in the music lyrics that began with the introduction of rock music are of vital concern to parents, educators, and teenagers. Recent research studies have particularly proven rock music to become increasingly explicit content laden with references to drugs, violence, and sex (Plotnik 44). According to the research, the kind of music in the 21st century comprises largely of words that promote potentially unhealthy behavior to prove profanity in the music industry (Kirsh 87). Profanity, however, exists in different scales depending on the audience and the culture that is the recipient of the message. In that case, the perceived offensiveness of the profane words varies as a result depending on the exposure. Different factors such as the profanity spoken, gender and the ethnicity of the speaker, audience and the context in which the profanity is spoken also affect the offensiveness and reception of the profane word (Drewett 3; Riviere 491).  The recent deterioration of standards held by the media in accepting the profane words has led to an increase in the occurrence of the words in the music industry. The increased exposure has consequently increased the public exposure to the profanities through media sources. Speakers express profanity because of different reasons such as releasing negative emotions, to shock or insult the receiver or out of sheer habit. Research presented by Kirsh (on page 101) indicates that most people express profanity to convey anger. The profanities in common use in the music industry contain words such as “fuck,” “shit” and the variants of the words ass such as “a-hole.” For the purposes of analysis, researchers have grouped the obscene words by types such as the seven dirty words, excretory words, and sexual words, and body parts, references to animals, religious blasphemy, ethnic slurs and social deviations (Herd 577). In this case, the seven dirty words semantically comprise the aspects of the physical body parts and include words such a “shit” and “fuck.” The research studies also report increased frequency of the use of excretory words and body parts such as “ass” in the present music (Kirsh 76).

The importance of music to the youth can be measured by the amount of exposure to it. Research findings have reported that an average adolescent takes three hours per day listening to music totaling to 21 hours per week. The time is compared to the 25 hours spent by the similar adolescent in watching television according to the same research (Dumbili 62). Listening to music advances with increasing age. Music is usually a secondary background activity for many other activities such as studying, driving and doing housework. As such, the influence of music can never be underestimated. The attraction of the adolescents to their favorite music and cultures is largely contingent upon the appreciation of the genre and the music itself including the rhythmic flow, appeal, and melodic structure. The factors above makes the listeners disregard the antagonistic or anti-ethical messages contained in the music as long as they enjoy the music (Plotnik 56). Therefore the adolescents stand higher risks of listening to age-inappropriate content in the music, and possibly imitating the behaviors as will be discussed in the subsequent sections.

Frequent use of profanity in music has profoundly negative connotations that evoke feelings of oppression in the target audience (Herd 577). The target audience feels angry, dejected and upset as a result. Furthermore, the target audience develops interethnic hostility and violence. The words in the above category include derogatory ethnic labels such as “nigger.” The singers who utter such words are likely to receive a negative evaluation from others since the choice of profanities spoken affect the audience’s perception of the speaker.

The social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation offers a framework for understanding the effects of exposure to popular celebrities on the consumers’ behaviors, attitudes and beliefs and self-concept. Media messages promoted through music serve to foster the development of gender-linked knowledge and competencies among listeners. As a result, the audiences’ perceptions of appropriate gender-based conduct, self-efficacy beliefs, normative gender roles and self-evaluative gender specific standards are influenced. The prevalence of profane words in music that predominantly disregards the female gender may negatively influence boys’ perceptions of the role of women in the society (Moody 187). The boys, in this case, do not appreciate the inclusion of women in the previously male dominated professions such as science and technology.  The present music containing lyrics that objectify the female promotes the loss of regards for the female gender (Herd 578). The music contains lyrics that portray women negatively as unintelligent sex objects.

Profanity, different from slang, obscenity or plain coarse language, depends on the context in which it is used. Much of the debate has occurred about the appropriateness of the hip hop and rock music in the society (Marsh 345; Riviere 491). What is seen as appropriate content depends on where the music is played and the type of audience. The activity taking place also determines the appropriateness of certain music. For instance, certain sexualizing content in music lyrics can be appropriate for a couple but inappropriate for children. Research studies have found that references to relationships, romance, and sexual behavior have become commonplace in the present music lyrics (Dumbili 62). The research goes further to indicate that adolescents prefer music that contains frequent profane words. For instance, the college-aged demographic has been found to consume large amounts of explicit music contents presented in the hip hop culture that teaches men that aggression and violence portray masculinity (Howell 91; Marsh 345). The messages potentially desensitize the audiences to embrace domestic violence in relationships and marriages.

Domestic violence has been a pressing issue over the previous past and often deemed by the media as acceptable (Herd 577). The content of the music lyrics and videos challenges men and women listeners’ perceptions of how to treat their partners in their relationships (Attwood 45). Numerous researches have reported increased violence against women particularly of sexual nature in the present music (Moody 187). The music content has consequently desensitized audiences concerning intimate partner violence. Increased exposure to such profanity moreover increases the tolerance to male aggression. The music of today mostly portrays domestic violence both visually and aurally through normalizing the use of force and aggression in relationships explaining the report that more than a third of US women have fallen victims of abuse (Herd 577).

Domestic violence includes behaviors that tend to or attempt to manipulate, intimidate, humiliate, frighten, terrorize, threaten or hurt someone. All women are susceptible to risks of domestic violence (Moody 187). However, research has reported that those between the ages of 20 to 24 stand a higher risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence. The claim supports the above assertion that college-aged demography is at an increased risk of consuming profanity-laden music. The cognitive learning theory explains the penetration of violent behavior among this age group. The theory asserts that individuals constantly receive messages from the society and media that eventually shape their relationship ideologies (Witchel 55).

The music of today contains significantly more sexual content than any other media outlets, particularly in rap music (Travis and Scott 455). Most parents and educators have openly criticized rap music for its graphic derogatory presentation of women as objects thus exploiting and victimizing the female gender (Moody 187). The critics argue that the lyrics contained in rap music reduce women to objects that are only good for abuse and sex (Travis and Scott 455). As a result, the listeners develop ideas, values, beliefs and stereotypes that debase women (Moody 187). The profane music content and the violent images contained influence the viewers’ conception of social reality that is usually violent in nature. Cultivation theory explains how long-term exposure to violent messages alters the audiences’ perceptions of violence in their normal lives. The theory explains the claim by interpreting the viewers’ reactions towards the violent content and the attitudes developed towards others after exposure. Numerous scholars have argued for the cultivation theory while adding that the violent portrayals in music lyrics and videos can lead to subsequent listener aggression through disinhibition. The long-term exposure to profane content is related to aggression in an individual’s life and subsequent violence in the society. The individuals once exposed continuously for significant periods become more accepting of violence over time.

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The negative effects of profanity in music on the listeners are the main reason why music censorship has gained renewed attention (Sullum 8). According to the general learning theory model, individuals are likely to use the profane words immediately after exposure. Continuous exposure is likely to strengthen the scripts of profanity in the individuals’ memory eventually increasing the frequency of use of the profane words (Dumbili 65). Adolescents and children are more vulnerable to the effects of profanity since they are still at their developmental stages of life.

Profanity causes discomfort among individuals mostly in the professional and personal situations. The discomfort causes further negative psychological responses including increased heart rate or slower breathing when exposed to profanity. Different research conducted concerning profanity in professional contexts report that the subordinates are less willing to comply with instructions containing profanity from their seniors. As such, profanity inflicts negative attitudes towards the speaker thus potential loss of reputation and credibility.

Aggressive behaviors are developed after exposure to profanity mostly after listening to music. The aggressiveness is also related to hostile personalities (Dumbili 62). According to researchers, profanity can cause a numbing effect on an individual’s normal emotional responses. The research studies further report that offenders are less disturbed by the exposure to profanity when the profanity is committed with intent to harm or belittle (Witchel 50). Profanity use is related to both physical and relational aggression in adolescents thus inflicting harmful behaviors against their peers (Post 6). The relationship between profanity use and aggression is associated with aggression subtypes. The negative effects of profanity in music provide continued support for ratings, content warnings, and censorship of use of profane words in media (Sullum 8). However, since profanity is debatable contextually, some music still makes it to the public domain irrespective of the profane content contained. The governing bodies, therefore, should be more accurate with their ratings concerning profanity.

The music regulating agencies have set the boundaries for artistic expressions with a view to controlling the occurrence of profane words in music (Raine 42). However, the regulators are limited to the drive for profits since research has it that music with more profane contents sells more than the straightforward music. The music has not changed since time immemorial but the lyrics that continue to become more explicit. The lines drawn between profane and not profane music contents depend on the family and societal values. For instance, some people may regard Katy Perry as a “girl power” while others consider her as selling adult sexuality to her audiences. The modern technological advancements in the music industry and the internet have made music easily available for live streaming and downloading.

The music downloads usually are not rated as required by the regulatory bodies and, therefore, readily reach the inappropriate audience. The music downloads are available with the lyrics and the videos as well. The music videos have a powerful influence on the audience since they combine the energy of music with the power of visual images (Attwood 39; Reynolds 29). Fortunately, children usually disregard the lyrics of the songs. However, the visual images that accompany the songs never escape their attention. The artists have created their profiles in the present social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube where they upload online versions of their music videos for their fans to view. The music uploads are accessible to the audience irrespective of the profane words contained.

Music has little or no significant effect on the values and lifestyle choices of kids with a healthy self-image and varied interests concerning music (Wilson 159). However, profane acts and words that are violent, sexist or homophobic may have a significant effect on some youth. Research reports indicate that listening to music with sexual content makes teenagers engage in sexual acts at an earlier age than their peers (Healy 38). Some music contains a lot of commercial content in the form of product placement most of which is alcohol (Kerr and Neel 48). The content contained both in the lyrics and videos are meant for sales promotion purposes. For example, Fetty Wapp’s songs have several mentions of 1738 portraying alcohol as a lifestyle that is above average.

Traditionally music was used to tell stories, part of rituals, emotional release, and religious reasons or just for the little fun and pleasure that comes with listening to music. With time, music has become part of the present society to the extent that life becomes incomplete without music. People have used music to express their thoughts, aggressions, oppressions, and let others into their thoughts (Healy 26). The singers are however becoming increasingly oblivious to the effect of their choice of words on the audience.

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The music has evolved to become more energetic and sensational with the introduction of new genres such as heavy metal, death metal, gangster rap and alternative music (Howe and Howard 608). The listeners, most of which are teenagers and children sometimes usually do not understand and comprehend the meaning of the words the artists are saying. According to research findings, 30 percent of teenagers know the lyrics of their favorite songs and different comprehension to the message conveyed within the song. As such, a section of the researchers have argued that excluding the lyrics makes the audience unaware of what is contained in the music (Harris 52). The avid music lovers however protest the assertion terming it censorship. The music lovers disagree to the censorship of the profane words in music arguing that the words contained within the music are just words similar to such used in poetry and other literature books (Howe and Howard 608). They further argue that listening to music, for instance containing lines that tell somebody to kill someone does not necessarily make someone want to kill another.

Music lovers have advocated for the separation of music and an individual’s personality. For instance, they have argued that it is someone’s choice of music that makes them feel relaxed. As indicated above, music has varied uses, and some people listen to music depending on their moods. Different people have different moods that are also dynamic depending on the environmental situations. Therefore different people will like different music. Wearing a Metallica shirt or listening to death metal songs will not make one develop or accept killing someone as normal. However, given that studies that use music videos show an increased tolerance to deviant behavior among listeners of profane music, the music should be regulated for appropriateness (Healy 67).

The music videos act to reinforce what is heard. Studies have found that men have significantly tolerable attitude to what is violent compared to women. Continuous exposure to videos containing interpersonal violence against women such as those contained in heavy metal tend to increase men’s acceptance of rape myths and eventual negative conduct towards the female person. The increasing acceptance of the aggressive acts by the men decreases women’s beliefs in the same thus explaining the less tolerance towards the same by the females.

The rap music has been rated as the most profane in the music industry (Travis and Scott 455). At the same time, the rap music attracts the largest teen audiences because of the emotional content contained in the lyrics. The rap music draws teens to fantasies of wealth, sex appeal and glamour in the videos through the rags to riches tales (Harris 52). The teens in poor communities view the rap music as able to provide them with solutions to escape from poverty, therefore, obtaining popularity in a large class of individuals (Travis and Scott 455). The rap music furthermore offers a creative outlet with which the teens connect with their peers. In as much as educators and parents have criticized rap music for containing sexual content, not all rap songs promote immoral sexual acts among the teens (Healy 44). Some rap music promotes healthy sexual relations among the listeners. The proponents have argued that it is the lyrics of the songs and the videos that have the influence on the listeners and not the genre of the music. Rap music additionally may discuss violence as an exciting lifestyle yet dangerous (Travis and Scott 455).

Borrowing from Michael Adams’ book “In Praise of Profanity,” it acceptable to use profanity in some contexts in music. The book does not argue that artists should use profane language in their lyrics and videos but should include the words with a purpose. In such cases eliminating the profanity would lead to total loss of the message or meaning of the words (Harris 52). Adams argues that profanity is dependent on the context, an assertion that is in agreement with the discussion in the preceding sections. In that sense, the profane words normally in use among the people of today’s century can be profane depending on the context used (Riviere 491). For instance, Adams explains that the word “fuck” can be profane (as in go fuck yourself) and simply slang (as in what the fucking fuck). Similarly “I’m about to drop a deuce” can be profane to a certain group of people, yet the sentence contains no profane word.

The evolution of the social systems have made language rules context dependent, and consequently the rules that determine the profanity of a certain word are context driven. Within these contexts, profanity can be vital in portraying the information accurately. Anti-Profanity groups have always advocated for the use of non-profane alternatives in place of the profane words (Currie-Knight 56). However, the synonyms that are used in place of censored music lyrics are imperfect substitutes usually failing to deliver the message accurately. For instance, one may opt to express that someone is a “motherfucker” by replacing the word with “dirty rascal” (Currie-Knight 56). The replacement does not adequately express the emotions contained in the message thus ineffective. People sometimes deliberately include the profane words in their song lyrics to offend the perpetrators and advise on a change of behavior.

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Profane words also promote intimacy and solidarity with others since the words carry risks and the use of them demands trust. Sex therapists have advised the inclusion of little dirty talks to couples experiencing increased displeasure in their sexual lives. The profanity contained in music can be used for similar purposes since it means one trusts their partner not to take offense (Currie-Knight 56). Therefore profanity is a tool to build trust.

Deployment of replacements out of politeness does not change the meaning of the profane words. When an artist speaks of the “s-word” in their lyrics, the audience will instantly know what the artist is referring to. However many words begin with “s.” The use of the deployed words is known as euphemism which is a modification of language that bears traces of its original form (Currie-Knight 56). Therefore using euphemisms such as the s-word and n-word is a profanity in itself.

In his book, Adams gives the readers various situations where profanity helps convey the message accurately in creative arts including movies and music (Adams 53). He argues that most of the profanity occurs in scenes where violence is discussed or enacted. The sequences are laced with emotions, and only profanity can help convey the emotion (Post 6). Similar to music, profanity can contribute to conveying emotional messages that would otherwise lose meaning if non-profane substitutes are used (Currie-Knight 56).

Language is dynamic, and words emerge, live and die by a sophisticated and continuous social negotiation. Similarly, the informal rules about when and where we can use profanity in music are subject to change. The regulatory authorities have imposed rules that disregard the words’ context and evolution thus potentially compromising the creative ability of some artists. There is no mutually agreed context-independent answer as to whether a term is a legitimate linguistic expression or profane (Adams 62). People make up the answers with time depending on the frequency of exposure and region.

Profanity in music has more disadvantages than the advantages. The most vulnerable of the population are the youth who are still in their developmental stages of life (Harris 52). Profanity in music takes advantage of the deviant behavior in the youths and adolescents to foster aggressive behavior among the youth. As defined in the introductory statement, profanity is regarded as grossly offensive and a public nuisance to the extent that it causes discomfort in social contexts (Mohr 1). The inclusion of profanity in music helps the youth to easily differentiate the youth music from the adult music thus promoting aggressive and deviant behavior. The rock, hard metal and, rap and hip hop music have frequently been criticized as containing higher frequencies of profane content (Marsh 345). The regulatory agencies have not been able to effectively control the content of music since the technological advancements and the Internet have improved the adolescents’ access to the music content from the social websites of the artists (Raine 42). The parents and educators also have limited control to what their children access online while downloading or streaming live music (Mohr 1).

Continuous exposure to profane music likely increases an individual’s risk of developing aggressive behavior. The target individuals also feel belittled and oppressed thereby cultivating hatred among the individuals. However, profanity, if used accordingly can be used to portray emotional messages that could not be conveyed otherwise. Profanity also improves interpersonal relations, particularly among intimate couples. In summary, regulated profanity is acceptable (Raine 42). The regulatory authorities should constantly revise the rules and regulations concerning profanity to ensure the rules comply with the dynamics of language.

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In summary, profanity in music is immoral, discomforting and unprofessional and requires immediate attention from the concerned parties. Profanity should be reduced to acceptable levels to prevent possible aggressive behavior in teens and adolescents. Complete censoring of profane words in music lyrics is known to compromise the meaning and message that the artist had intended to communicate. Therefore the regulatory bodies should improve the methods through which they respond to and control usage of profane words in music. The artists and music producers should also use profane words only when necessary, and alternative words are not available.

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