Since the days when the CBS censors shielded young eyes from Elvis Presley's swinging hips, nervous parents have worried about the impact of sexually frank pop music on America's teenagers. Would those licentious lyrics and infectious beats combine to lure young people into having sex before they are emotionally ready?
At this point, the answer is: Apparently not. New research reports the percentage of pop hits that reference sex or sexual desire has risen steadily from the 1960s through the 2000s, as has the percentage that reference alcohol or drugs.
In the new study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, a research team led by Peter Christenson of Lewis & Clark College examined themes in top-40 songs from 1960 to 2010. The researchers examined the Billboard Top 40 singles for every other year from 1960 to 2010—1,040 songs in all.
"As in 1960, the predominant topic of pop music remains romantic and sexual relationship," they write. "However, whereas the proportion of lyrics referring to relationships in romantic terms remained stable, the proportion including reference to sex-related aspects of relationships increased sharply."
Specifically, 70 percent of 1960s pop hits referenced romantic love, and that number remained relatively steady through the first decade of the 2000s, when it was 64.6 percent. However, the percentage of hits overtly mentioning sex or sexual desire rose enormously over that period, from 18 percent in the 1960s to 41.7 percent in the 2000s.
"Alcohol and drugs references increased over the whole period, with a significant change point in the year 2000, when the number of references leaped upwards," the researchers write. "The number of references to alcohol and drugs increased ninefold, and that to wealth and status increased sixteenfold over the five decades we covered."
Not surprisingly, the researchers believe this reflects "the ascent of rap and hip-hop into the popular music mainstream." But they add that, although those related genres "have a strong undercurrent of critical social and political commentary," the percentage of hits that referenced social or political issues remained low—7.9 percent in the 2000s, compared to 7.5 percent in the 1960s. It seems the rap songs that become the biggest hits are not those that feature political commentary.
But that shouldn't be surprising. "It makes sense that the music of adolescents is about love, sex, and the fun of being young," Christenson and his colleagues conclude.
That said, they "find no evidence that higher sexual explicitness, or frequent references to substance abuse, is reflected in adolescent behavior." For many of today's teens, it seems, pop hits provide vicarious thrills.