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Pop Music Lyrics Are More Violent Than Those in Hip-Hop

New research finds that contemporary songs in both genres are the most likely to contain violent imagery.
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Madame Tussauds debuts its Miley Cyrus wax figure atop a wrecking ball at The Venetian on March 9th, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Madame Tussauds debuts its Miley Cyrus wax figure atop a wrecking ball at The Venetian on March 9th, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

As a new Supreme Court case reminds us, hip-hop is often intensely scrutinized because of the sometimes violent imagery in its lyrics.

But new research finds that the same thing also true of a different musical genre that receives far less finger-wagging: mainstream pop.

"Lyrics obtained from a random sample of pop music from the top charts revealed that this genre utilizes violence in lyrics at a level similar to hip-hop/rap, and more so than any other music format," write University of Missouri researchers Cynthia Frisby and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz.

The researchers analyzed the lyrics of 409 top-selling songs released between 2006 and 2016. The songs, by artists including Jay-Z, John Legend, and Justin Bieber represented a variety of genres; all had sold at least one million copies.

The team noted which songs contained profanity, references to violence, and misogyny, which the researchers defined as lyrics that depicted women as "beneath men" or referred to women as "usable and expendable."

Their most striking finding: The best-selling pop songs almost uniformly contain violent imagery. Amazingly, 99.5 percent of the pop hits they analyzed (198 in total) referred to violent acts. That's slightly higher than the 94.7 percent of hip-hop numbers to feature such language, and far greater than the percentage of any other genre.

Cynthia Frisby.

Cynthia Frisby.

"One wonders why pop music is not as maligned as hip-hop/rap for its communication of violence," the researchers write. "It may be that the cultural styling and historic roots of the hip-hop/rap genre elicit more scrutiny than the purportedly lighter 'bubblegum' lyrics of pop music."

For most of the negative qualities the researchers examined, however, hip-hop stands out. The genre "contains more profanity, misogyny, and references to stereotypical sex roles than lyrics found in pop, R&B, country, alternative, Latin, jazz, and rock music," they report. Rap and hip-hop songs were also the most likely to "contain themes that show women as submissive."

Across all genres, 27.6 percent of songs included lyrics that degraded and/or objectified women. These were confined almost exclusively to three genres: rock (14.6 percent of songs), hip-hop (46.2 percent), and R&B (59.5 percent).

The new results are consistent with other recently published studies that found pop music has gotten angrier and more sexually explicit over the decades (even as actual sexual behavior has declined among teens).

Whether this makes the songs more honest expressions of adolescent angst or implicit invitations to indulge your worst impulses remains a subject of debate.

What's clear is the music most popular with today's adolescents frequently "communicates violence, demeans and objectifies women, and perpetuates gender stereotypes," the researchers conclude. They fear these lyrics may negate lessons taught in high school sexual-education courses.

You can instruct young men to respect women, but if the songs they're hearing offer a different narrative entirely, which message will resonate more strongly?