During my teenage years I thought I was a cutting-edge kind of guy. . . especially when it came to my interaction with popular music. The musical soundtrack to my middle school years played through a single earpiece connected to a nine-volt battery-powered transistor radio that picked up two competing Top 40 am radio stations. By high school, our family’s stereo system was used to play my growing collection of vinyl 45s and LPs. By the time I graduated, I proudly stood at technology’s front edge with a newly installed 8-track player at my fingertips in the family car. I even had – believe it or not – an 8-track recorder!
Every time I tell my own kids about this privileged pop music past, they just shake their heads and laugh, all the while wondering how people my age ever made it through the adolescent years with any semblance of sanity. Archeological relics like 8-tracks and 45s (upon seeing one of these my son asked, “What kind of CD is that???”) have been replaced by a fast-growing glut of high-quality music devices and outlets that play a seemingly endless catalog of musical options, turning this generation of children and teens into the most music-saturated and savvy generation of kids that’s ever lived. As parents, we often find ourselves left standing confused in dust as our children speed off into musical worlds that we either don’t understand or might not know even exist.
For example, a trip to the local record store can be overwhelming. Rack after rack of CDs are loaded with thousands of different albums featuring as many singers and groups. Genres vary from pop, to rap, to country, to R&B. . . . all appealing to the varying tastes and preferences of teens. The growing prevalence of online music downloads and websites makes it all that much more complex.
Research points to the fact that kids are listening to lots of music each and every day. Hard and fast data is hard to come by since teenagers often report being engaged in other activities while music is playing in the background. Estimates range from anywhere between two to five hours of time spent listening to music every day. And when they’re listening, they’re hearing a variety of musical themes, some of them positive, and many that take them places far beyond the bounds of God’s Kingdom design and order.
This musical reality is the cause for tension in many Christian families as parents struggle to monitor and guide their kids’ music choices. The kids, on the other hand, wish we’d just leave them alone because after all, “it’s only music!” Or is it? Does music have power in the lives of our kids, and if so, what can we as Christian parents do to teach our kids to make wise musical choices?
The place to start is with a look at the role music plays in the lives of our teenagers. Like all other media, music shapes the lives of teens in three powerful ways. First, it helps shape their perception of life and reality. Another way to say this is that music serves them as a map. Teenagers are on a developmental journey from the dependence of childhood to the independence of adulthood. They are in a tumultuous period marked by tremendous physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual change. It’s a time of uncertainty that’s filled with questions. In a world where the traditional institutions of family, school, and church no longer shape young people as powerfully as they once did, kids are going elsewhere by default to find their way through adolescence and into adulthood. Music meets them right where they’re at to provide guidance and direction to a group that desperately wants and needs both. It teaches them what to think, how to think, and how to live. It interprets and defines life for teenagers. It shapes their worldview. Recently, MTV began running a series of ads that show just how much life-shaping power the music television network realizes it has. The ads depict fictional teenage characters with short bursts of commentary on what makes each one unique. At the end of each ad, a dictionary page appears on the screen. In the definition for “define yourself” are the three letters, “MTV.” The network knows the power of music, a power that led culture-watchers in the early 1990s to refer to teenagers as “The MTV Generation.” Since then the network’s influence has continued to grow.
Second, music shapes kids’ behaviors. Imagine for a moment that you are going to separately visit three middle school-aged boys who live in three very different communities. One lives in the inner-city of Detroit. Another lives in a wealthy upper-middle class Charlotte suburb. The last lives on a remote farm situated on the plains of Nebraska. At each stop you arrive unannounced and knock on the door. While the three settings couldn’t be more diverse, something unusual – or not so unusual – happens each time the young thirteen-year-old in the house answers the door. In every case the boys look, dress, talk, and act like rap star Jay-Z. They all wear the hip-hop clothes, speak with hip-hop slang and accent, and use the same mannerisms. They all look like they grew up in the same ‘hood! Even though they all live in different settings, they’ve been shaped by listening to the same rap music offerings. At the 2006 MTV Music Video Award’s show, music star Kanye West walked on stage to present the Video Vanguard Award to music video producer Hype Williams. In his introduction, West explained how music and music video shapes young lives: “The music we make is the soundtrack to our lives, and these are the visuals that influence our culture.” He then described how music and music video taught him what shoes to wear, what cars to drive, etc. Music’s lyrics, visuals, artist lifestyles, and concerts shape student’s values, attitudes, and behaviors on everything from clothing style, to sexuality, to spirituality, and just about everything else.
Third, music puts a mouth to issues and situations that they are experiencing and feeling. That’s why so many teenagers embrace music with lyrics that speaks to their experiences and needs. Over the years I’ve heard numerous kids say about their favorite artist, “He relates to me because he knows exactly how I feel.” Josh Schwartz, the creator of the popular teen TV series The O.C., a show that’s featured lots of popular music in its soundtrack, says, “Most people feel pretty insecure most of the time, and hearing that in music makes you feel less alone.” That’s why teens who are hurting find so much solace in the world of popular music. Singer Mariah Carey recalls the role music played in her life as she grew up in a difficult and broken home situation: “Music was my main source of peace and happiness. If there was something messed up going on in my house, turmoil and things that were unsettling to me, I would walk and sing to myself. It grounded me emotionally.”
Because music is a powerful molder and shaper of teens, parents must be proactive in their response. If we don’t hear or see something we like in their music – lyrically, visually, or stylistically – the temptation is to shut it all down without taking the time to either share our reasons for doing so, or leading our kids through the process of learning how to make their own music choices that bring honor and glory to God. But if our role as parents is to protect our teenagers from harm and provide for their well-being so that they grow into spiritually healthy adults, perhaps there are some more positive steps we can take that, while they require some hard work on our part, will result in equipping our kids for God-honoring belief and behavior.
First, realize that it’s important to differentiate between the music’s vehicle and content. The vehicle is the delivery system, be it music (of a variety of styles and types), or the types of instruments used (radio, internet, iPod, etc.). All too often we focus on condemning the vehicle, when in reality, the vehicle is neutral. For example, rap music is not evil because its rap music or because I might not personally like its sound. Rather, it’s the lyrical and visual messages that should get our attention. We should focus our efforts on understanding and helping our children and teens evaluate these life-shaping messages they are seeing and hearing as they engage with music.
Second, avoid the extremes of over- or under-reacting to music. We over-react when we prohibit contact with music. Prohibiting everything sends the faulty message that popular music has no potential for good. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of popular music out there that’s very positive. We under-react when we ignore the lyrical and visual dangers of music, thereby sending the message that our teens can partake of anything without fear of negative influence.
Third, determine to teach your teen to think “Christianly” and “biblically” about the world of popular music. Parents often ask me, “What have you done about music in your home?” That’s a good question. When our kids were young, we exercised our God-given responsibility by thinking for them, setting clear limits on the types and amounts of music they were allowed to listen to. We spent a lot of time saying “no.” As they got older and began the process of thinking for themselves, we determined to think with them. When they would bring music into the house or express an interest in music that was questionable, we would discuss the music’s content, evaluating it with them from the perspective of God’s Word. While thinking with them isn’t always marked by seeing eye-to-eye, it is an effective teaching tool that respects their developing God-given intellectual capacities. The goal in this process was to prepare them to think Christianly for themselves as they entered their adult years.
Fourth, as you listen to their music with them, teach them the “3-D” music evaluation process. Start with the first step of discovering the music’s themes and messages (see the sidebar for sample questions to use during this step). Then, discern the differences between the music’s truth and lies by evaluating everything you heard in the discovery step against the measuring stick of God’s Word in order to determine whether or not there is agreement with God’s never-changing truth. How do you do this? Take all the questions asked in the discovery process along with the music’s answers, then compare the music’s answers with God’s answers to these questions. Finally, work with them to decide whether or not this particular musical piece should be a part of their music diet. Two questions you should teach your teen to ask of all media are: Should I listen or watch? and Will I listen or watch?
Fifth, evaluate all music. It’s wrong to fall into the trap of believing that everything we call “secular” music is negative, and that everything we call “Christian” music is squeaky-clean. When you submit all music to the evaluation process you might be surprised to discover that much “secular” music points to things that are good, true, right, and honorable, while there’s some “Christian” music that is theologically suspect or offbase.
Sixth, listening to their music with them can give parents valuable insight into the problems and issues they are dealing with in their lives. It’s as if their music serves as a mirror. When we look over their shoulders into the mirror of their music, our eyes will be opened to the issues we need to lovingly discuss and address. Knowing our teen’s music preferences gives us insight into their emotional and spiritual health.
Never underestimate the power of music to mold and shape your teen. Take the time to understand the themes and messages. Be alert to the influence of music in your home. Be diligent in your efforts to guide and direct your kids. And, above all, heed the words of the apostle Paul, “Base your happiness on your hope in Christ. When trials come endure them patiently; steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer.” (Romans 12:12, JB Phillips Translation).
As Christians, we should use the Bible as the measuring stick for evaluating everything we see and hear in popular music. Informed regular study of God’s Word yields specific and helpful guidance on what to celebrate and enjoy in the music world, and what to avoid. If you could reduce God’s message to you on music to its simplest terms, it might read like this: “Because I love you, I tell you this: Imitate and think about me! Avoid imitating and believing those themes, messages, and behaviors that I say are wrong. They will slowly steal your heart, harm you, and destroy you. But go ahead and indulge yourself in and celebrate those themes, messages, and behaviors that I say are pure, true, lovely and admirable. Let me ask you this. . . . Does your music lead you closer to me and my ways? Or does your music pull you away from me and my ways? Prayerfully and deliberately look at the world of all media through the ‘eyes’ of my Word. Use your head to think through all your choices, so that you will guard your heart.”
Here are some questions to use in the Discovery and Discernment steps.
-What is the music’s main topic and theme?
-Does the music offer suggestions on how to think, talk, act, or live?
-What does the music say about the way the world is? Does it say anything about the way the world ought to be?
-Is there right and wrong? What is right and what is wrong as taught in the music?
-How is God portrayed? What does it say about God?
-Is the one true God replaced by some other idol (self, sex, money, power, etc.)?
-What does it say about how to treat others?
-What is the source of happiness and satisfaction in life?
-Who or what is glorified in the music?
-What does it say about where peace and hope are found?
-Is the music hopeful or hopeless?
Looking for a good tool to help teach your teen how to evaluate music and media “Christianly?” Check out CPYU’s online resource center (www.cpyu.org) to learn more about our How To Use Your Head to Guard Your Heart guide to making Godly misc and media choices. A non-sectarian version of the handy little guide – Minding Your Music – is available for use in public school settings.
Dr. Walt Mueller is the founder and President of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. To learn more about today’s youth culture, visit them on the web at www.cpyu.org.
 Spin, September 2005, 83.
 CosmoGirl, November 2005, 109.