To put this question in perspective, let’s look at some changes that have occurred in pop music over the last ten or fifteen years. Specifically, consider the styles that are youth oriented and those that are adult oriented (“easy listening,” “good music,” “middle-of-the-road”).
For the most part, pop music of the ’50s and early ’60s confined itself to very simple melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic forms. Many songs consisted of only three or four chords. Lyrically they fell into two basic categories: novelty lyrics (“Poison Ivy,” “Purple People Eater,” “Stranded in the Jungle”) and the “moon-spoon-croon” variety (“Silhouettes,” “Earth Angel,” “Sincerely,” and so forth). Rarely did they touch on issues of moral, political, or social significance.
In contrast to the style of the ‘50s, the rock music we hear today is more complex in all respects. Songs like “MacArthur Park,” “Classical Gas,” and “Spinning Wheel” exhibit a musical complexity that was unheard of in earlier pop music.
As a result, rock and rock-oriented music dominate the pop music scene today.
Paralleling the evolution of the music itself has been a change in the style and contents of lyrics. Today’s lyrics, laden with symbolism, double entendre, and hidden meaning, appeal in a different way to listeners than those of a decade ago.
This is the age of the “message lyric,” and the message usually has political, social, and therefore moral significance. This is not to say that all songs fall into this category; many do not. Generally speaking, however, the following contrast can be made between the lyrics of a decade ago and those of today: The former were written for the main purpose of entertainment; certainly few of them were written for the purpose of social or political change. The lyrics of today, however, carry a social or political message. Frequently the message is not good. Often, it is one of rebellion.
This brings us to the important issue: how to discern between good and evil in popular music. Discernment is the key word here, for all Latter-day Saints must learn to discern right from wrong for themselves. Discernment cannot be legislated; it cannot be forced. And you have the opportunity of learning to distinguish between good and evil pop music.
Pop music is a combination of aesthetic elements and moral elements. The aesthetic elements are a matter of personal taste and therefore do not lie within the realm of moral absolutes. So in order to make a moral evaluation of pop music, we must first distinguish between the aesthetic and the moral elements.
Music, per se, is an aesthetic element. It is not in the nature of music, unassociated and by itself, to exhibit moral qualities.
Consider some of the elements often supposed to make it immoral: volume, beat, and instrumentation.
Volume itself is usually not a cause for condemning music; symphonic and oratorio music is sometimes very loud indeed. In present-day pop music, however, the use of electronic amplification permits excessive and sustained loudness, which may be annoying, nerve-wracking, or even cause physical injury to some ears. Volume should be a matter of courtesy and good judgment, with consideration for all who are listening.
The heavy beat of pop music is an element also of some other music. There is nothing moral or immoral about it.
The instrumentation of pop music should not be considered a moral issue. Music played on an amplified guitar is no more moral or immoral by virtue of its tonal color than the same music played on an oboe or electronic organ.
From a moral standpoint, it is the lyric that we should be concerned with. Here the issue is relatively simple. If the message tends to promote evil—it is evil! And even though we happen to like the music to which the evil message is set, it is still evil and should be avoided.
If you have never heard the message and it is only “music” to you, then it has no moral implications to you. Consider, though, that if your first exposure to the music was with its immoral lyrics, then the music, with or without words, would always conjure up the immoral message for you.
Frequently music that is accused of having moral implications actually is, in reality, the result of the environment in which the music is played or the purpose for which it is used.
For example, recently I wrote the music for an industrial film, the purpose of which was to sell a brand of heavy trucks. Heavy rock music was used throughout. I don’t believe the music had any moral implications. Were the same music used in a discotheque, however, with strobe lights and go-go girls, many people would call it evil music. The point is that the environment and intent can also determine the moral consequences.
Notice that several years ago the standard formula for creating a romantic, sensuous atmosphere was dim lights, candles, and soft melodic string music. This same music is heard constantly in restaurants, airplanes, and elevators—the music having a different emotional impact in each different environment.
Any discussion of the moral aspects of pop music would be incomplete without touching briefly on the reputation and example set by the creators and performers themselves.
Because entertainers are constantly before the public eye, they exert a great influence on society. Some exert a better influence than others. There is a point, however, where Latter-day Saints in good conscience cannot support the works of certain performers. When we patronize the music of individuals who openly advocate evil, we contribute to the success of their careers and their ability to influence others. We literally supply the financial backing for Satan’s work.
Recent months have witnessed the deaths of two young rock stars—Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Both died from an overdose of the drugs that they had condoned. How many young people have been influenced by these two and others like them? How many will end up the same way?
Several years ago John Lennon boasted that his Beatles were more popular than our Savior. It is tragic that for many young people, this blasphemous statement was true.
They knew every published fact on Lennon’s life; they studied, analyzed, and memorized every lyric he wrote as if it were a kind of scripture. The practice of idolatry is common today, as in biblical times. There is very little difference between the worship of the “golden calf” and the adulation of some long-haired rock-and-roll stars.
When considering the moral implications of pop music, both fans and critics should put aside personal musical tastes and consider the moral criteria. To young people, this means to be aware of the moral implications of pop music and avoid the tendency to overlook the sins of pop music because you like the music. To adults it means to not condemn the music because you don’t like it, unless the dislike is, in fact, based on moral implications. Personal taste is not reason enough to condemn any music.
Pop music is only a small part of the world’s musical heritage. Cultivate your musical taste; enlarge your musical experience. Once having appreciated the world’s great music, you’ll probably find a steady diet of rock-’n’-roll rather dull.
Those who think it doesn’t matter what kind of music we listen to should realize that right now you are the sum total of all the decisions you’ve ever made. The company you keep, the books you read, the movies you see, and the music you choose all become a part of you. They will determine the kind of person you’ll be.
“Through music, man’s ability to express himself extends beyond the limits of the spoken language in both subtlety and power. Music can be used to exalt and inspire or to carry messages of degradation and destruction. It is therefore important that as Latter-day Saints we at all times apply the principles of the gospel and seek the guidance of the Spirit in selecting the music with which we surround ourselves.” (Quoted from Priesthood Bulletin, December 1970.)