It’s in the Mix – Music and Your Teenager
“I never really thought that being obnoxious would get me to where I am now,” says Billie Joe Armstrong, the front man for mainstream alternative band, Green Day. Together with his bandmates, he routinely fills 15,000 seat stadiums and has sold millions of records to date. “When I play, I’m not a nice guy,” he continues. “You know, when you get really drunk, and it’s like this person inside you that wants to come out and be obnoxious? It’s that same kind of thing. And then people like you for it. I don’t get that.”
A lot of Green Day’s fans are teenagers, and like Billie Joe, their parents don’t “get that” either. After all, why would kids like yours want to listen to music that even its creator calls obnoxious? In fact, why do teenagers need music in the first place? Why do parents and teenagers often disagree about music? And what can parents and teenagers do to reach a middle ground?
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The answers to questions like these aren’t always obvious, but that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore the questions. Let’s see what we can discover as we attempt to answer them now.
Why Do Teenagers Need Music?
There’s no denying the fact that music has power in a teenager’s life. Kurt Cobain was the 27-year-old lead singer for the mainstream group, Nirvana. When he committed suicide, thousands of teenagers gathered in candlelight vigils to mourn his death.
Christian music artist, Cindy Morgan, tells why. “Kids are influenced by what they listen to,” she says. Then, commenting on studies done by youth culture specialist, Bob DeMoss, Morgan reveals an even more tragic result of Nirvana’s music. “After the Kurt Cobain suicide, there were several teenagers who committed suicide [too] and who left suicide notes that said, ‘I wanted to go like Cobain.'”
Just as music can influence kids in negative ways, music has power to bring teenagers new hope. John Cox is a relatively new name in Christian music, but his songs and lyrics are already making an impact on eternity. A group of six people picked up his CD, Sunny Day, to take along on a road trip. They listened to the album over and over until they reached their destination. By the end of that trip, four of the six had been so moved by Cox’s music, they had decided to become Christians.
Dez Dickerson knows the power of both mainstream and Christian music. During the early 80s, he achieved success as guitarist and background vocalist for the artist formerly known as Prince. After becoming a Christian, Dickerson moved into Christian music, and recently founded his own Christian music company, Absolute Records.
“Music can express some things that teenagers feel inadequate or unable to communicate effectively themselves,” says Dickerson. “Music is the only thing that can impact man on all three levels of his existence: spiritual, mind, and body. [For teenagers], it’s the kind of thing where they can become empathetic with the artist or the communicator and feel, ‘This record speaks for me.'”
Although he’s not necessarily a Christian, Sid Holt (managing editor of the influential mainstream music magazine, Rolling Stone) agrees with Dickerson. “I think that rock-n-roll, in at least one sense, is a search for meaning in our lives,” Holt says. “And that’s partly what religion is about.”
Holt’s counterpart at the popular Christian music magazine, CCM, is April Hefner. She adds “Like most artistic expression, [music] is a mirror of who we are and a lens to what we might dream of being. Teens need music to give voice to the thoughts and feelings they are unable to verbalize.”
Why Do Parents and Teenagers often Disagree about Music?
Though we sometimes don’t like to admit it, music also fills that need in the lives of adults. In spite of that, music is historically known as a catalyst for conflict between teenagers and their parents.
“If your parents turn to a [radio] channel and hear a rap artist that’s not Christian, [then] all they’ve been exposed to is the negative,” explains twenty-one-year-old, Lisa Bragg. “Everything you see in secular radio is mostly about sex, violence, [and] partying,” she continues. “[Parents] are just trying to protect kids.” Together with her two teenage sisters, Bragg formed the popular R&B/hip-hop group, Out of Eden (Gotee Records) as a Christian alternative to that kind of negative music.
Morgan acknowledges that personal history also plays a part in parent/teenager disagreements over music. “The kind of music teenagers listen to now is completely different from what their parents listened to growing up!” she says. “Parents probably think it’s too loud, it’s noise. But it’s what kids are listening to [and] it’s different.”
Hefner sums up her perspective this way, “Disagreements over musical styles, in my opinion, aren’t really a concern. The younger set tends to hop on whatever is new and inventive, while the older generation finds comfort in what they know. It’s a never-ending cycle that should probably be seen as more of a comedy of ages than anything.”
However, Hefner is quick to follow up with this thought, “Disagreements over musical substance are a completely different matter. While I adamantly believe that young people shouldn’t be sheltered from the real world, I am also willing to concede that there exists a need to monitor musical selections for maturity appropriateness.”
What Can Parents and Teenagers Do to Reach a Middle Ground?
In an attempt to monitor their teenagers’ music, some parents forbid listening to any mainstream music. Others leave it to their children to monitor their own musical choices. Still others contend that all modern music is harmful, and thus allow only hymns or classical music to be played at home.
Dickerson offers this advice for the situation, “The thing to recognize is there are differences between issues of taste and issues of principle. In other words, I may not like asparagus, but that doesn’t mean it’s of the devil! I think that walking in enough wisdom to recognize the difference between what I don’t like and what isn’t good [for my kids] is going to go a long way.”
A middle-aged father at a recent Newsboys concert apparently agreed with Dickerson. He obviously didn’t enjoy the loud, guitar-based songs the band played-and he steadfastly refused to join in the teeny-bopper dancing going on all around him! But he saw value in setting aside his musical taste in order to take his daughter on a “date” to hear firsthand the Newsboys unique brand of in-your-face Christian lyrics and alternative music.
His daughter seemed to appreciate it too. Halfway through the concert, she turned her attention from the stage and gave her father a long, heartfelt hug.
That father also demonstrated another important factor when it comes to parents, teenagers, and music: Communication. Hefner underscores the that by saying, “The best way parents and kids can reach a middle ground is simply to communicate. To listen to music together, and be willing to discuss it in light of their beliefs. What does the music say? How does it represent the truth? And what is my response to it?”
Dickerson also suggests we communicate our parental desire to see our children pursue spiritual health in their music choices. “I look at it the same way as I do nutrition,” he says. “There are some foods that aren’t necessarily healthy, but they taste good. And every once in a while, in moderation, they aren’t a bad thing. But then again, you’ve got to know yourself.
“To me the big thing is, and not with just music but with anything in my life, is this helping me to stay close in my walk with God or is this a distraction? That gives me a principle-driven paradigm to live by as opposed to [counting] the number of bad words in a song.”
When we communicate our desire for healthy music and use our parental influence to help our children make principle-driven choices, Dickerson suggests we go a long way toward reaching a musical middle ground with our teenagers.
Popular Mainstream Musicians
Of course, as we encourage our children to make healthy musical choices, it’s also helpful for us to know something about the artists who are vying for our kids’ attention.
On the topic of mainstream musicians, Dickerson advises, “We can’t be surprised when sinners sin. If I’m dealing with a [mainstream] artist, then I have a responsibility to understand the difference between what that artist’s frame of reference is and what mine is. What their values are and what mine are.” That way we can help our teenagers choose wisely the music they listen to.
At the time this article was written (1997), four mainstream artists were especially popular among teenagers: Alanis Morissette, Pearl Jam, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Boyz II Men. Here’s a little background on those artists.
Musical style: Alternative
Recent Album: Jagged Little Pill
Background Information: Twenty-two-year-old Alanis Morissette has already experienced enormous success in the music industry. She’s sold more than 13 million copies of her debut album, Jagged Little Pill, had a few chart-topping hits, and won several mainstream music awards-including a Grammy for Best Album of the year.
Unfortunately, most of her music is characterized by profanity and endorsements of unhealthy lifestyles (such as substance abuse and sexual promiscuity). Her first number one hit was “You Oughta Know,” an explicit and venom-filled hate letter to a former lover.
Teenagers find this former Catholic schoolgirl’s music thought-provoking and irresistible because she speaks frankly about the mixed-up passions of adolescence-and because the music actually is well-performed. Although I wouldn’t recommend owning a Morissette CD, you might consider listening to it with an older teenager when it comes on the radio. Afterward, it could spark excellent-and healthy-conversation between you and your son or daughter.
Christian Music Alternatives: Sarah Masen (re:think), Rebecca St. James (ForeFront), Jenni Varnadeau (Pamplin Entertainment).
Musical style: Modern Rock
Recent Album: No Code
Background Information: Since the release of their first album in 1991, Pearl Jam has become a powerhouse in mainstream music, selling multi-platinum albums, winning award after award, and selling out one live performance after another. Pearl Jam has also demonstrated uncompromising loyalty to their fans, performing “fan club only” concerts and taking on mega-corporation, Ticketmaster, in an effort to keep ticket prices down.
That said, there’s not much else that’s positive about Pearl Jam. The band has filled its latest album, No Code, with depressive, violent, and sexually ambiguous imagery. Lead singer, Eddie Vedder groans out the lyrics, “Are you woman enough to be my man?” in the song “Hail, Hail.” The CD itself is decorated with astrological symbols, and photos included in the CD case show (among other things) a man jumping off a window ledge and a man vomiting blood in a sink. One reviewer who actually likes Pearl Jam still described them this way, “They only get weirder the more famous they get.”
Despite their immense popularity, Pearl Jam seems more harmful than helpful, and teenagers would be wise to let this band pass them by.
Christian Music Alternatives: Plankeye (Tooth & Nail), Bleach (ForeFront), Believable Picnic (Absolute Records).
Hootie & the Blowfish
Musical style: Acoustic-based rock
Recent Album: Fairweather Johnson
Background Information: Hootie & the Blowfish exploded onto the music scene in 1994 with their debut record, Cracked Rear View (which unexpectedly sold 13 million copies). Powered by the soulful vocals of lead singer, Darius Rucker, the second album from these “four average guys,” Fairweather Johnson has been equally well-received.
The biggest complaint about Hootie and the Blowfish to date is that they’re “too nice.” Although they’ve been known to hang out in bars, their music is generally characterized by feel-good lyrics and upbeat, optimistic tunes. Perhaps that’s why teenagers often find their parents listening to Hootie & the Blowfish.
Make no mistake, this band isn’t made up of choirboys. But they aren’t all bad either. Dez Dickerson compared Hootie & the Blowfish to a piece of cake: fine when taken in moderation, but unhealthy if used as a steady diet. That’s about right.
Christian Music Alternatives: Third Day (Reunion Records), Spooky Tuesday (Innocent Media), Big Tent Revival (ForeFront).
Boyz II Men
Musical style: Urban/R&B
Recent Album: II
Background Information: Boyz II Men have their roots in gospel music, freely acknowledging the vocal acrobatics of Take 6 as the model for their own silky-smooth harmonic sound. Since their debut release in 1992, these college-aged guys from Philadelphia have made fans of more than 20 million music buyers, won gobs of awards, and performed for the Pope and President Clinton alike.
In fact, there are a lot of things to like about this group. They profess to be Christians and start every concert with a prayer. They’re known to have a “squeaky clean” image. And several of their songs deal with excellent themes, like the hit, “Thank You,” which is an expression of appreciation for the love and support they’ve received from their parents.
The big flaw with Boyz II Men has been their willingness to sing sexually suggestive lyrics in songs like “I’ll Make Love to You” and “Jezzebel.” For that reason, this group might be bad for a teenager struggling with sexual temptation. However, if your teen’s maturity level is such that he or she can skip past the occasional sex-focused songs, then Boyz II Men might otherwise be an enjoyable choice for the whole family.