Should artists be held responsible for how their lyrics impact impressionable consumers?


Fact Box

  • In 1999, the National Institute on Media performed a content analysis of the top 10 CDs, revealing that each CD contained at least one song with sexual content, and overall, 42% of the songs on these CDs contained very explicit sexual content [1].
  • A study of college students found that listeners’ moods and thoughts were influenced less by lyrics and more by the actual instrumentation [2].
  • While movie ratings are mandatory, “explicit” ratings for music are completely voluntary and there is no clear definition of “explicit” [3].
  • The First Amendment has been interpreted to protect artistic freedom as part of free speech [4].
  • From the 1972 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior to the 1993 American Psychological Association report “Violence and Youth,” the official consensus has been “The greatest predictor of future violent behavior is a previous history of violence,” rather than the influence of the art to which we are exposed [5].

Ivan (Yes)

We start down a questionable path when we ask artists to self-censor the morality of their work. Morality is built into the artist’s sensibility (we all have developed some moral sense), but it may be one that doesn’t coincide with mainstream morality. To ask the artist to self-censor is then to ask them to impose a moral sense on their work that isn’t their own. The artist’s interior morality would already be at work in the artist’s composition. Any additional censoring would be external rather than internal. If the artist is held morally responsible, then the set of morals we impose is societal morals rather than the artist’s own. This sets a dangerous precedent. The very nature of art is to push the boundaries of society, to stretch the limits of conventional morality. If we ask artists to sanitize work based on conventional mores, we at best produce artists who create bland work, and, at worst, we set the stage for art that reinforces some of society’s worst impulses or that puts the artist on trial for being unconventional.

It’s important not to promote violence in any form, but to ask the artist to be morally responsible is to open the door to censorship. We live in a pluralistic society in which we navigate a wide range of moral sensibilities every day. We have to decide how we imbibe both the best and the worst moral messages we encounter, but we can’t ask others to change their ways of thinking simply to make us feel safe.

Cornelle (No)

Artists must have a certain amount of creative freedom in order to effectively express themselves. That also applies to people in general who don’t necessarily consider themselves “artists” – there’s a little bit of an artist in all of us. However, we live in a society where we must consider how the exercise of our freedoms affects those around us. That consideration becomes even more important when a person or group has the ability and/or desire to influence thousands and millions – especially when those thousands and millions are in large part young consumers.

There’s a difference between music that critiques/discuss violence present in our society and music that makes it sound cool to commit violent acts. Artists that produce music glorifying murder, violence, and rape should be held morally responsible for how their lyrics influence their listeners. The average American between 8 and 18 years old listens to music for approximately 2.5 hours of music per day [1]. Narrowed down to teenagers, that number increases to around 4 hours per day [2]. People, in general, are impressionable – even more so in those formative youth and teenage years. Artists who exploit that demographic to build a fanbase and ultimately a source of income should consider how violent lyrics affect the development of these fans. Violent music doesn’t automatically make a peaceful person violent. However, such music can encourage people to give in to violent impulses, and artists should be held responsible for the violence their music can invoke.

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