Tuesday, May 06, 2003

WHERE THERE'S A HIT, THERE'S A PUNCH: The trio of Craig Anderson, Nicholas L. Carnagey and Janie Eubanks have been investigating violent music and if it can make people do bad stuff like hitting and punching and screaming, on behalf of the American Psychological Association. And guess what? They've found it does. [postscript document]

This isn't some join-the-dots study, it should be pointed out. This is proper, grown-up science – they're thinking people, as this shows: "There are numerous differences between watching violent television, playing violent video games, and listening to popular music. One is the lack of a video component to audio-only music." See, they've spotted that music doesn't have pictures. That's something yer layperson might miss.

And don't think it's an easy job, either: " Some rock music songs have such garbled lyrics that they have given rise to debates about what the lyrics are (e.g., “Louie, Louie”; “Inna-Godda-Da-Vida”) - not like nice old video games, who make the smashing of a rock into someone's head explicit and easy to quantify. Maybe 'Louie Louie' is actually encouraging our kids to smash their teacher's faces off with chalkboard rubbers, but we can't hear the threat?

But the muttering doesn't matter. Why not? Because if " listeners are capable of recognizing themes of music (i.e., violence, sex, suicide, and Satanism) even when it is difficult to comprehend specific lyric content" then it must clearly follow that they're picking up on the words even if they don't understand them. So, you Christian Rockers, all the singing about how great Jesus is doesn't work, because you sound like Satanists.

And you might think that since songs may sing about the Killing of Georgie without actually showing the kid being stabbed repeatedly in the throat by a bloke with a broken bottle, that makes a violent song less nasty than a violent video, right? Wrong! Because " The lack of visual images in music both allows and requires listeners to imagine details. Concrete images probably play a major role in transfer of ideas from the video world to one’s own real-world situations. […] The lack of concrete images in violent music may well allow listeners to imagine audio antagonists similar to real-world antagonists. Thus, there are reasons to expect violent-lyric songs to be either" See? Eminem might be thinking only about raping lesbians with specific, lesbian style haircuts and dungarees, but because he doesn't show you what sort of lesbian he's thinking about, we'll be assuming any woman we suspect of being gay is now a target for the actions Eminem has instructed us to carry out. In fact, this reasoning seems to run, we'd have been better off watching a video of Eminem raping someone, so that we'd only be likely to assault someone who looked like the victim.

Our gang of three concede that studies into lyrics in the past haven't found any correlation between hearing violent songs and being violent, but that isn't going to stop them trying to prove the reverse. So, let the experiments commence:

Experiment One: Using Tool's "violent" Jerk-Off and the same band's "non-violent" Four degrees (a favourite, of course, with Gandhi), fifty nine studes were played one or the other songs and asked how they felt. Guess what? Although both songs sounded similar, the people who heard the one with angry words felt more aggressive than the ones who heard the other. Interestingly, nobody felt aggressive enough to refuse to fill in an idiot questionnaire, or punch someone for making them listen to tool. Curiously, girls felt more aggressive than boys, which the research team decided to put down to how girls don't like heavy rock and so were probably pissed off at having to listen to it. Encouraging to see they're not building their experiments on lame assumptions, then.

Experiment Two: Pretty much the same, only this time the aggressiveness or otherwise was going to be checked by seeing how people felt about certain words. For this, we have to accept that the words that are meant to be always aggressive actually are – yet it included words like "butcher", "knife" and "blood", which don't actually fit the always aggressive archetype, surely – or do our three researchers feel threatened every time their universities exhort them to 'give blood'? Anyway, again, they say violent words begat pairings of words as being more violent.

Experiment Three: This time, fifty students; four 'violent' songs, four 'nonviolent' songs. The students hear one of these songs and are then… timed. As they read out a list of aggressive and non-aggressive words. Our understanding of the results is that listening to violent lyrics proved to allow the listeners to read the list of words out faster. Now, even if we try to not panic at the thought of the headlines: 'Beastie Boys Make Speed Readers of Nation's Youth', we might wonder if this proves that hearing aggressive words makes you more aggressive, or merely has them further forward in your mind and able to come up with them that little bit faster?

Experiment Four was designed to see if having the violence in a humourous context made any difference. " The songs were “A Boy Named Sue” (violent) by Johnny Cash (Silverstein, 1994) and “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!” (nonviolent) by Allan Sherman (1991). Hmmm, so a song which is about a man coming to terms with his absent father – choosing to hug him rather than kill him – is violent; a song which lists an array of unpleasant fates – including being eaten alive by a wild animal, and contains the vaguely homophobic bit about "no sissies" is non-violent? Fair enough. The conclusion was that while the humorous context cancelled out the violent content (something that I'm not sure Emienm tracks would support) it doesn't stop violent thoughts brewing away when you listen to them.

Experiment V is a song by Kate Bush

Experiment five was the same thing, but larger, using Weird Al Jankovic and Violent Femmes as humorous and non-humorous respectively, with a violent and non-violent track from each. Results were pretty much in line with what we'd been led to expect.

So, if you accept the wonky methodology and questionable assumptions of the research, do we have a problem? Well, the team accept they've only got as far as "proving" that listening to violent music can lead to the brewing of violence, but, of course, this means "research on potential violent song effects on aggressive behavior becomes even more important now that we have clearly demonstrated that such songs increase aggressive thoughts and feelings." The first rule of science is that your findings should always clearly demonstrate where the next research grant needs to be lavished.

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