informal essays

Music, Sex, And American Culture

Originally Posted: November 2, 2006 (Age 18)

I turned on the radio last week and heard Salt ‘N’ Pepa singing their 1991 hit, “Let’s Talk About Sex.” Such encouragement is unnecessary today, because sexually explicit lyrics are found everywhere in the music industry. Some hail this as a sign of moral depravity. But instead of worrying whether or not musicians should sing about sex, I am more interested in discovering the attitude behind what is being sung. They are not just talking about sex; they are talking about it in a context of satisfying personal desires without regard for anyone else’s desires. The lyrics of today’s popular music consistently enforce a selfishness that has influenced the modern teenager’s mindset about sex and relationships.

This trend is evident in the rap and hip-hop industry, due to the combination of its popularity among youth and the content of its lyrics. According to Billboard, there are twenty-five songs that have been legally downloaded over one million times, achieving the coveted “platinum” status. Ten of these belong to rap and hip-hop, the most of any genre represented. Five contain at least one obvious sexual reference. Chamillionaire is looking for “a chick I wanna bone.” Sean Paul hits on a girl with “bumper exposed and gal you got your chest out.” Usher and his friends want to get girls “in their birthday suits.” Female artists are as provocative as the men. The Pussycat Dolls entice a guy to cheat on his girlfriend, singing, “Don’t you wish you girlfriend was hot like me…your secret is safe with me.” Nelly Furtado’s hit “Promiscuous” is all about meeting someone and discussing the mutual desire for sex.

Yet there are plenty of teenagers who can’t stand rap. Many prefer at least some parts of the enormous rock genre, a huge, undefinable collection with ever-evolving lines between such subcategories as alternative, punk, hardcore, and pop. But, like hip-hop, this music has been infested with the same kind of thinking. For a few months of 2006 the band Fall Out Boy’s songs had been listened to more times than any other band on the widely-used MySpace.com. They are a perfect reflection of the same paradigms that are so prevalent in hip-hop, because almost all of their songs contain some kind of sexual innuendo. Their first hit single, “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” is about sleeping around: “I’m just a notch in your bedpost… I’m watching you two from the closet.” “Dance, Dance,” another song with over a million downloads, isn’t much better: “I only want sympathy in the form of you crawling into bed with me.” Nickelback, who has now hit the four million mark in sales for their latest record, doesn’t even waste time with such hinted references and statements. In “Animals,? they sing explicitly about picking up a girlfriend who is sneaking out of the house and having sex in the car.

We live in a culture governed by a four-letter word: self. Getting what I want is the most important thing. This message is screamed in almost every area of society, and it is apparent by our actions that we believe it. Oil companies report record profits while consumers grumble that they are being charged too much for gas. Burger King tells us, “Have it your way,? but we complain if we wait more than three minutes in a the drive-through. People have the idea that they are, or should be, entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want it.

It is no surprise, then, that music refers to sex in the same way. What all of those popular rap and rock songs have in common is the selfish attitude they present about relationships; they each involve using a guy or girl to satisfy a personal, sexual desire. Each person is thinking of himself before others. And it is here that we have been tricked. Society tells us we can always have what we want, and specifically, the music tells us we can always have what we want in relationships. But we soon discover that this does not work!

There is no problem if the guy and girl both want to have sex; they can both get what they want. But real life is rarely as simple. What happens later if the girl wants the guy to listen to her talk about all of her problems while the guy wants to take a nap? They cannot both get what they want, but the culture of self tells each of them that they should. Sooner or later, someone will get dumped, and they will both look for another person to satisfy their needs and desires, because they think that’s what relationships are all about.

Relationships are more about satisfying someone else’s needs and desires. When this occurs, there is less conflict. The guy is OK with not getting what he wants every single time because he is more concerned about what the girl wants, and vice versa. The wonderful paradox is that when each of them deny their own needs, they each have their needs met. This is called “love.” Unfortunately, this message is lost in today’s culture. There is a grand total of two love songs in the platinum list (and even one of those, Cascada’s “Every Time We Touch,” is focused on the physical pleasures that come with love). Sex is a part of love, but love involves much more than sex. Too often sex occurs only in a selfish context that has nothing to do with love. Yet today’s popular music consistently tells us that relationships are only about getting what we want.

In fairness, all musicians do not promote the culture of self. Some even recognize it and fight it. Two years after Salt ‘n’ Pepa said, “Let’s talk about sex,” Newsboys responded, “Let’s talk about real love / truth and consequences / and coming to our senses / and lies we’d best unlearn.” Emery admits, “How quickly lust can pretend it’s love.” Switchfoot says that sex is “easier than love.” But these bands are in the minority; they are few and far between. Most of the artists with high album sales and chart-topping songs consistently reject self-denial and sing about satisfying personal desires.

Our parents heard the Beatles say, “I want to hold your hand.” We hear Taking Back Sunday say, “I want to break you down so badly.” As American culture continues to embrace selfishness and personal satisfaction above all else, it is reflected in its popular music, which does little or nothing to teach teenagers about genuine love and respect.

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