“He said a song inspired him.”
So said 15-year-old Neil O’Grady of fellow 15-year-old Charles Williams, who on March 5 was arrested for shooting up Santana High School in suburban San Diego, killing two teens and wounding 13 others. Once again we ask: Could popular music inspire a teenager to violence?
Consider what we know music can do. On the positive side, the profession of music therapy is growing rapidly, and hospitals find that music actually enhances the healing process. The Roper organization found in a 1999 study that listening to music is the most popular way to relieve stress in the entire world. A little jingle can not only sell tons of coffee, but even those who will never drink a drop of java will remember the jingle forever.
No one can possibly believe that a medium with such positive power has no negative potential, a sobering thought since music is such a powerful element of youth culture. In a September 2000 report, the Federal Trade Commission noted that the most popular Internet purchase for teens is music. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s November 1999 study concluded that between the ages of six and 16, music’s portion of a young person’s media consumption triples while television’s portion declines by half.
Teens name listening to music as their top non-school activity, consider musicians as heroes far more than even athletes, and rate music ahead of religion or books as factors greatly influencing their generation. Two researchers in this field found that “one of the most important reasons cited by adolescents for seeking exposure to popular music is to learn about their social world.” Dr. Sheila Davis, adjunct professor of lyric writing at New York University, aptly states that popular music provides “the primary equipment for living for America’s youth.”
As Dr. Howard Hanson, director of the Eastman School of Music, put it nearly 60 years ago, music “has power for evil or for good.” A 1999 report by the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded that music “affects our moods, our attitudes, our emotions and our behavior.” The American Psychological Association includes “media influences” in the list of factors contributing to a child’s violence risk profile. The American Academy of Pediatrics says popular music can contribute to depression, suicide and homicide. The American Medical Association says popular music with destructive themes “could be harmful to some young people.”
Dr. James Johnson, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, found that consuming violent music videos makes teens more approving of violent behavior in others and more likely to report being violent themselves. Dr. Hannelore Wass at the University of Florida found that the more negative music’s theme, the more its consumers know and believe its message. It’s no wonder that Newsweek magazine named popular music lyrics as a factor contributing to the current “culture of aggression.”
Young people know that the “equipment for living” they receive through music is often destructive. Polls show that more teens than adults believe popular music encourages anti-social behavior. The Institute for Youth Development recently found that teens believe that repetition of negative messages in popular music “reinforces the idea that it’s OK to use drugs or have casual sex.” A 1999 survey found that two-thirds of America’s teens believe that violence in television and music is partly responsible for school shootings.
The teenage murderer of Officer William Robertson in Milwaukee said he was inspired by lyrics from gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur. The teenage murderer of Texas State Trooper Bill Davidson actually defended himself by arguing that violent gangsta rap motivated him to kill. To murder his father in Los Angeles, Christopher Golly lured him to his bedroom by blasting on his stereo a rock song in which the singer fantasizes about killing his father.
Thomas Solomon, who shot up Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., also listened to Tupac Shakur. Following that incident, Time magazine reviewed recent headline-grabbing school shootings and noted a clear pattern of cultural influences. Mitchell Johnson, who with Andrew Golden killed a teacher and four students and wounded 10 others in Jonesboro, Ark., listened to Tupac Shakur. Kip Kinkel, who murdered his parents in Springfield, Ore., consumed the violent nihilism of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. So did Andrew Wurst, who killed a teacher at an eighth-grade dance in Edinboro, Pa.; Luke Woodham, who murdered his parents and a classmate in Pearl, Miss.; and Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Which brings us back to Charles Williams. News reports say he was a very angry young man. There is every reason to believe him — that the music he consumed inspired him to vent his anger through violence. The music industry, after all, now celebrates such inspiration, showering with awards sociopaths who, masquerading as musicians, describe how they choked and slashed the life out of an unfaithful wife or raped an annoying mother.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse last month reported that only one-half of America’s teens live in homes where parents monitor what they watch on television, and only one-third have parents who restrict the kind of music they buy. Until that changes, the Luke Woodhams and Thomas Solomons and Charles Williamses will continue using the “equipment for living” they receive with deadly consequences.