Youth Culture Window
Sometimes, popular music can be as difficult to interpret as the Book of Revelation…or Robert Frost’s poetry. Then again, sometimes music’s message is easy to understand.
The messages in this week’s top four songs are crystal clear…even though I wish some of them weren’t.
Usually, I recap the biggest songs of the year in December, but after taking a look (and listen) to the top songs on the charts right now, I’m compelled to address their messages…even though it’s only February.
Not all of these songs’ messages are bad; but not all are good, either. What these five songs have in common is a clear message that will strongly resonate with today’s kids. Here they are, as found on Billboard.com this week.
Born This Way by Lady Gaga
Gaga has always been known to make an entrance. Her highly anticipated song, Born This Way, followed suit breaking all barriers in the first week. The song jumped #1 on iTunes instantaneously and seized the #1 slot on Billboard in just one week with a record-breaking 448,000 opening-week digital sales (top female, third ever), and with the highest opening radio airplay ever (a first week audience of 78.5 million). To top it all off, Born This Way happened to be the 1,000th #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Gaga told Billboard, “I couldn’t be more blessed to have the fans that I have.”
What are the millions of Gaga fans absorbing from the very preachy Born This Way? After all, her pro-LGBT message is politically correct, readily accepted by many churches, and the majority of America agrees with her.
What do your kids think?
What should they think?
We just wrote a brand new Music Discussion using this song as a springboard to talk about this with your kids (complete with scripture, small group questions and a wrap up). We’ve also already devoted an entire Youth Culture Window article to this song exposing its message to young people today. I encourage you to take a peek at both of those free resources.
Firework by Katy Perry
I should start off by saying I’m torn with this one. I’m not a Katy Perry fan; in my parenting seminars, I’ve even branded her as “the most toxic influence” in youth culture today…though Lady Gaga sometimes gives her a run for the money. For the most part, Firework is a simple song about letting your light shine. That’s a great message; even Jesus had something similar to say in His Sermon on the Mount. Perry’s version goes like this:
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
Cause baby you're a firework
Come on show 'em what you're worth
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
Baby you're a firework
Come on let your colors burst
Make 'em go "Oh, oh, oh!"
You're gunna leave 'em fallin' down-own-own
The official music video mixes in some compelling scenes: an overweight girl finally chooses to go swimming with the “perfect” girls at a pool party, a teenage boy breaks up his parents’ fight, and a young boy with cancer regains the courage to live his life. The video even features a guy winning over a few thugs who are out to mug him. I can get behind all of that. The video definitely stirs those “let’s-make-a-change-so-we-can-make-a-difference” feelings many of us have.
However, since it’s a video from the girl who brought us I Kissed a Girl, it also features two guys kissing. It’s just another example of the ever-present discussion of homosexuality in our culture today.
Now you can see why I’m torn about this song: teenagers will clearly hear the call to “shine” and “let your colors burst,” which are terrific challenges, but because Perry’s examples in the music video include homosexuality, they might also be misled into believing homosexuality is a viable, alternative lifestyle (even if they’re heterosexual).
If the Apostle Paul were to address this song, as he did his “foolish Galatians” in the New Testament, he would probably remind us that, “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9). In other words, if we’re not careful, the homosexual scene/message corrupts the wholesome message found in the song.
When it comes to sex, I wish Katy Perry would finally pick sides. In one song, she talks about melting popsicles (while mimicking oral sex). In another she’s talking about kissing girls. In her latest song, two guys kiss. The sexual ambiguity is probably just Perry’s way of ensuring her records sell to people on both sides of the fence.
But one day, that firework is going to blow up in her face.
Grenade by Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars, who changed his name from Peter Gene Hernandez, is becoming a regular on Billboard’s Top 10; in fact, he’s even becoming a regular in the #1 slot. His last hit, Just the Way You Are, not only scored the #1 position, but it was the only song (for a while) that had a super positive message in it… especially for young girls lacking self-esteem. Essentially, it was a love song for his girlfriend, telling her exactly how wonderful he thinks she is:
When I see your face
There's not a thing that I would change
Cause you're amazing just the way you are
And when you smile,
The whole world stops and stares for awhile
Cause girl you're amazing just the way you are
Bruno’s latest song, Grenade, also hit the #1 spot, but more importantly, it’s got another positive message in its lyrics. The gist of his new song is, “I’d die for you…even though you won’t do the same for me.” Take a look at the chorus:
I’d catch a grenade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Throw my hand on a blade for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I’d jump in front of a train for ya (yeah, yeah , yeah)
You know I'd do anything for ya (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Oh, oh I would go through all this pain,
Take a bullet straight through my brain,
Yes, I would die for ya baby;
But you won't do the same
Bruno’s clearly dealing with a different quality girl in Grenade than he was in Just the Way You Are. (My advice would be to go back to her!) Regardless, Bruno’s commitment to her is unwavering, even if she won’t keep her promises to him.
If my body was on fire, ooh
You’ d watch me burn down in flames
You said you loved me you're a liar
Cause you never, ever, ever did baby...
But darling I’ll still catch a grenade for ya
You can read the message of the song’s full lyrics or watch the music video, but both say the same thing: I’m willing to make a sacrifice for you, even if you won’t do the same for me. There are several powerful lessons in this song for our kids. Check out our brand new MUSIC DISCUSSION for this song to share those lessons with your teens. Note: the last two seconds of the video make the message of the video very different from the song, because in the video, he commits suicide at the end—which casts a much different meaning than the words. Giving your life for someone is noble. Taking your own life when you’re depressed is a totally different thing. If our kids see the video, we should talk about the huge difference between the two.
Unfortunately, Mars’ real life isn’t as clean and wholesome as his lyrics in these songs. The day this article was written, he pled guilty to possession of cocaine, just three days after winning a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Personally, I hope Mars is able to learn from the poor choices in his past so he can continue to put strong, healthy messages at the top of the charts.
Black and Yellow by Wiz Khalifa
This week’s top song is by a rapper whose real name is Cameron Jibril Thomaz, though he goes by the stage name of Wiz Khalifa. The title of the song doesn’t give much clue as to the song’s meaning, but in this pre-SuperBowl XLV article, Khalifa explains that the lyrics of Black and Yellow refer to his hometown’s NFL team, the Pittsburg Steelers (because of their black and yellow uniform colors).
Sorry. I’m not buying it.
I know, I know. We were taught in seminary to interpret a person’s work largely by what he says of it himself. However, Paul, Matthew, John, Peter, Moses, and the other writers of the Bible were under the influence of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure the same can be said of Wiz Khalifa.
The song’s complete set of lyrics seem to cover many topics…while also being quite vulgar; there are plenty of racial slurs, mentions of ho’s, and even a few F bombs. Take a look at some of the lyrics about half way through his song:
Got a call from my jeweler, this just in
Bitches love me 'cause I'm f**kin' with their best friends
Not a lesbian, but she a freak though
This ain't for one night, I'm shinin' all week, ho
I'm sippin' Cliquot and rockin' yellow diamonds
So many rocks up in my watch I can't tell what the time is
Got a pocketful of big faces
Throw it up 'cause every nigga that I'm with tailored
Yeah, uh huh, you know what it is
Everything I do, I do it big
Yeah, uh huh, screamin' that's nothin'
When I pulled off the lot, that's stuntin'
So, did you hear anything about the Steelers in that? Me either.
Take a look at the official music video to make the call for yourself. Granted, in one scene, the rapper’s posse waves the Steelers’ “terrible towel,” but almost every time he sings the phrase “black and yellow,” the video is showing gold (yellow) bling or his brand new, yellow sports car.
If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I think this song is about a rapper bragging about having it all (in spite of what he said the song was about). This song is just another example of our material-driven culture. Fellow rapper T.I. sang about much the same thing in his song Whatever You Like. Years ago, Madonna was a self-confessed Material Girl (living in a material world). And nowadays, millions of young people are going into debt because they can’t manage their wants.
Sadly, if our teenagers aren’t careful with Khalifa’s message, his Black and Yellow will leave them “black and blue.”
F**kin’ Perfect by Pink
A song with the F word actually in the title. What else did you expect from the angst-driven Pink, who was born Alecia Beth Moore? (Sadly, it’s not the only song in the Top 10 with the F word in its title this week; check out Cee Lo Green’s “art.”) Pink’s song doesn’t just contain the F word in its title; it also uses it several times throughout the song’s full set of lyrics.
Throughout the song, Pink tells herself that in spite of mistakes she’s made in the past, in spite of the judgments thrown her way, and in spite of the misunderstanding that others have for her, she is still valuable. In fact, to quote her, she’s “f**kin’ perfect.”
The whole world's scared so I swallow the fear
The only thing I should be drinking is an ice cold beer
So cool in line, and we try try try, but we try too hard and it's a waste of my time
Done looking for the critics, cause they're everywhere
They don’t like my jeans, they don't get my hair
Exchange ourselves, and we do it all the time
Why do we do that? Why do I do that?
Why do I do that..?
Pretty pretty please, don't you ever ever feel
Like you're less than f**ckin' perfect
Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel like you're nothing
You're f**ckin' perfect to me!
Granted, it may not be the healthiest message – or the most accurate message – but it’s certainly a message today’s teenagers can identify with. Too many know what it’s like to be “mistreated,” “misplaced,” “misunderstood,” and “underestimated,” like Pink says in her first verse.
There’s an edited version of the song that augments the lyrics to omit the F word, and there’s even an edited (“clean”) version of the music video, though viewers who pay close attention will still see Pink mouth the F word. Ummm…be warned; this video is raw. But that’s the only way Pink, the artist behind So What, knows how to be. In the course of the video, viewers see a little girl fighting on the playground. Then a teenage version of herself gets into a big argument with her mom. Even later, the young woman makes larger mistakes, like shoplifting from a department store, and ultimately, attempting suicide by cutting her arms in a tub. The video is very well done.
I can’t say that I agree entirely with Pink’s message in her new song—it’s messy, mixing good and bad elements—but one thing is for sure, it will strike a deep chord with many kids.
The Remaining “5” of the Top 10
Unfortunately, the remaining five songs in the top 10 contain similar content.
Enrique Iglesias’ Tonight I’m Lovin’ You (#6 on the cart) is all about a guy who wants to spend the night with a girl. Cee Lo Green’s song, F**k You (#7 on the chart), has been on the chart 25 weeks and was one of the favorites sung by American Idol contestants on “group night.” The clean version is titled “Forget You.” Rihanna’s song S&M (#8 on the chart) is about... well... do I really need to explain? The Black Eyed Peas’ song The Time (Dirty Bit) (#9 on the chart) jumped to number one on iTunes when they performed it in front of over 100 million people for the Super Bowl halftime show. (Jonathan predicted this jump on his Twitter page as they performed.) Finally, Britney’s Hold It Against Me, a song that has already seen the #1 spot on the chart, hangs in at #10 on the chart this week. It will be interesting to see which direction this song will go on the charts now that her racy video for the song was released just a few days ago.
Finding Identity in Music
At first, it struck me as a bit comical that many of these artists have changed their names over the course of their career. Then I realized that their “new” identity is helping shape the identity of millions of kids.
In a few, select regards, that’s a good thing. Bruno Mars sings about loving someone for who they are, and then sings about making a sacrifice for others. Katy Perry says to let your light shine. Gaga emerges on the chart with a message that seems to be wrapped in love and tolerance, but for our kids who believe Gaga’s pro-promiscuity and pro-LGBT agenda, these practices eventually become a house built on sinking sand. Wiz Khalifa weighs in on our kids’ thinking, telling them that life is about accumulating toys. And Pink says no matter how many (really) bad choices we make, we’re still perfect, “f**kin’ perfect,” to be exact.
So, if you don’t like the identity that these top 5 songs might forge for your teenagers, do something about it.
- Know the music and the message behind it. Monitor www.Billboard.com at least once per month, paying special attention to the Hot 100. Also, check out the iTunes Store to see their “Top Charts” list which indicates the biggest-selling songs of the week. If you see something new – and chances are you will – then just do a quick online search for the song. There are many sites on the web that will let you screen an artist’s lyrics. Just enter the song title and artist in Google’s search bar and you’ll get thousands of options. If the song has a corresponding music video, sites like YouTube or Vevo will have it the day it’s released. Once you know the ropes, searching for, screening, and discerning a song’s message can be done in under 5 minutes. That’s a small investment of time considering the huge payoff your research might yield. We also provide you with free resources like our weekly Youth Culture Window articles and Jonathan’s Blog that will also help you keep current with trends and changes in pop culture.
- Talk with your kids about the music and message. If you start off a conversation by saying, “What do you think of Lady Gaga’s new song?” chances are good kids will address the sound, the beat, the video, or some other technical aspect of the song. They (generally) won’t think to discuss the message behind the song…even though it’s slowly embedding itself inside them. But if you understand the message in a song (because of your online research) you can talk to them about the song’s deeper meaning. By the way, this is not a one-hit wonder conversation; it will have to be an ongoing conversation. Every week, the world is exposed to new music, and new messages. You’re gonna have to keep up…or catch up.
- Help them make godly decisions about music. It might be difficult for you to control which songs your teenagers hear in the checkout line at Wal Mart, or in the cafeteria at the local high school, but you do get to weigh in on what goes in their iPods. Don’t be afraid to play the NO card, but better yet, help them understand why it’s important for them to come to that decision on their own if necessary.
Today’s music contains very differing messages, but they’re all powerful. These messages will resonate with millions of teenagers, as evidenced by the fact that they are already in the top 5 slots. By the way, the same could be said about much of the rest of our culture’s top songs. I just chose the top 5 songs because they’re at the tip top. But taking a close look at the music that rounds out the Top 10 would be a great investment of time, too. Just make sure you stay the chief influence on your teens’ identity by understanding today’s music and its message.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.