The Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini once said that, ‘Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind.’
I wonder if he would respond the same way if he were taking part in the current debate on the over-sexualisation of music aimed at young teens. Today’s teen music industry may not be boring, but is it healthy?
This question was raised again this week by Mike Stock, former pop impresario and the man responsible for launching the career of Kylie Minogue.
Mr Stock is no longer the force in music production and promotion that he was in the 1980s when he was part of the influential triumvirate Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Yet his views still carry weight, coming as they do from someone who, in his time, was not averse to using sexuality – albeit a gentler kind – to sell his wares.
'The music industry has gone too far,’ he says. ‘These days you can't watch modern stars - like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga - with a two-year-old.’
‘Ninety-nine per cent of the charts is R 'n' B and 99 per cent of that is soft pornography. Kids are being forced to grow up too young.'
So, are music lyrics and the associated video and magazine images becoming more sexualised or is the teen music culture much as it ever was?
There’s always been a sexual element in pop music. Ever since Elvis and his fellow-rockers subverted the music of the black American south, sexuality and sexual magnetism have been a part of the look and sound of music aimed at teenagers.
From the mid-50s, marketers were quick to seize on the power of sexuality to sell music and musicians as products.
Where teenagers are concerned, of course, the sexual element holds a powerful attraction. They’re keen to explore their own emerging sexuality and quite like pushing the envelope of ‘respectable’ behaviour.
That much has always been true. Yet there are some differences in today’s music scene.
Firstly, the music and the image-making that surrounds it are being pitched at younger and younger children these days.
Secondly, music is now just one component in an entire 24/7 celebrity industry, which ensures that kids are surrounded by these images everywhere they look. Sexualised images aren’t just for album covers and teeny bopper magazines any more.
They’re spread across around-the-clock music TV, easy-access web videos and internet games, all of which kids can easily access without their parents’ involvement, even on their mobile phones.
The third big difference today is that the sexual references in music are often much more explicit and in some cases more aggressive.
That’s partly because the music business is as it has always been, a business. It’s not primarily about public enlightenment or teen education but the profit motive.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with that – even Mozart and Beethoven had to make a buck. But in this age of what psychologists call constant partial attention, a lack of focus brought on by multi-tasking with media, young people are harder than ever to reach.
Where kids are concerned, companies know they won’t make money dishing up the same-old, same-old every month of the year. So, artists and their record labels often turn to shock value, because in artistic terms it is the cheapest way to get attention.
The problem for parents is that over time these shocks become shocking – they have to. The lyrics and images that got the attention of young people a decade ago just won’t cut it today. If shock value is the goal, something progressively stronger, more provocative is always called for.
The music world today, of course, is about more than selling music tracks. There’s an entire multi-media industry devoted to music – and using teen music to sell products.
There’s a tendency in some sections of the music media to say things like, ‘We don’t shape the culture, we just reflect what’s already there.’
That’s rubbish. If you reflect a thing often and graphically enough, you end up reinforcing it.
Besides, most of the sexualised imagery pumped out at young teens today is a long way from what they’re seeing in the normal course of their daily lives.
Why should we as parents simply accept that nudity and overt suggestiveness are just part of life for children in the postmodern world? Graphic lyrics and images are put out there for one reason; it’s not to educate our kids, it’s to sell products.
We must decide if we want our kids to be used as marketing fodder in that way.
I’m not suggesting that we return to some repressive Victorian prudism. We don’t want our kids to live in a bubble, hyper-protected from the real world. It’s just that we don’t want them losing too quickly what precious little innocence they still have.
Neither am I implying, as Mike Stock seems to be saying, that almost all of the music industry is poison where kids are concerned. There is positive, uplifting music out there, in almost every genre that kids enjoy.
The problem is that the good stuff is often buried under a barrage of bilge, which is pumped out by cynical, insecure or depressed young artists and even more cynical record companies.
It’s time we called on music and media companies to play their proper part in supporting parents who want to protect their kids. Perhaps we need stronger independent regulatory oversight of companies which, experience suggests, are neither willing nor capable of regulating themselves.
It’s also time we took a long hard look at how adult behaviour sets the references points for marketing to young teenagers.
Let’s take that last point first. The issue of increasingly blatant sexual references in teen music is just one part of a much larger conversation we ought to have – about the sexualisation of adult pop-culture generally.
Sex and sexuality have become much more visible in the mainstream culture over the past decade. Images and practices that were not long ago only associated with pornography are now, in some areas, becoming part of mainstream media output.
How can we expect kids to steer clear of highly sexualised references if they’re on open display in cinemas, because of an inadequate system of film categorisation?
How can we expect young teens to avoid provocative images when they can be found on any magazine stand, where ‘soft porn’ is used to sell everything from mobile phones to kitchen designs? (I use quotations here, because whether we call porn ‘soft’ or ‘hard’, it’s still porn.)
When it comes to the idea of regulation, people shudder at the very mention of that other ‘C’ word: ‘censorship’.
Censorship is and always will be a fact of life in any halfway sane society. As a community, we may like to talk the talk of ultra-liberalism, but we regularly censor media content anyway.
We don’t, for example, allow purveyors of child porn to produce or disseminate their material. Is that censorship? Yes. Is it helpful? Yes, indeed.
Censorship at its best is not about denying adult people the right to make choices. It’s about trying to protect what is positive and healthy in a society, particularly among its most vulnerable members who can’t make informed decisions for themselves.
In a social sense, not every taboo needs to be broken. Sociologically, taboos often play an important role in promoting what a society or social group has learned to be important for its survival.
Taboos draw lines that help people to ‘swim within the flags’ (to borrow an expression from Aussie beaches).
Healthy taboos operate in the background, marking out healthy ethics and values, protecting the young and vulnerable.
The idea that every taboo has to be smashed is largely an invention of the ultra-liberal part of Hollywood. And again, that is motivated only by a desire to sell a product.
Sometimes, while we’re distracted by pretentious discussions about the pros and cons of censorship, we fail to see what’s happening in the world of our children.
We don’t realise how much their minds are being shaped by material that doesn’t align at all the values we’re trying to teach them – like self-respect and respect for other people.
Perhaps we do need more regulation on the lyrics played out on radio stations. No, I’m not talking about prison sentences for radio proprietors, but perhaps more rigour when it comes to granting radio licenses.
We might also benefit from some more regulation about what magazine covers are displayed where in supermarkets and bookstores. It’s not about what adults can handle; it’s about what children are exposed to.
And why not, even in these cash strapped times, have a little government funding to support private companies that produce internet protection software – the kind of software that helps parents monitor home internet use?
At the end of the day, of course, all of this would be pointless if parents were not closely involved in the lives of their children. Even in the digital mobile media age, parents still have the most power when it comes to shaping their children’s thinking.
The goal in bringing up children is obviously to teach them how to shape their own future by making their own wise choices. The key in this is helping our kids to ask their own questions about the music, movies, websites and games they’re into.
Questions like: what does this package say about people of the opposite sex? Does it suggest that they should be treated as objects for my gratification? Does it suggest that relationships are about getting what you can while you can?
As parents, we can also teach our children them how to distinguish between the reality of an artist’s life and their celebrity industry image.
There are practical steps we can take, too, such as refusing an in-room TV or PC, at least until they’ve shown they can use it wisely. We can maintain family security levels on our internet accounts.
The bottom line is that we remain watchful, without becoming paranoid. If we’re too uptight about the big world outside the front door, our kids will develop deep insecurities and become even more likely to look for escapism in music and technology.
At the end of the day, señor Rossini, not every kind of music is good. Sometimes, when it comes to our children, a little more of the less sensational kind might be preferred.
Hear Mal's BBC Radio interview on this subject: click here.