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The History and Influence of Popular Music

The effect music has on society has changed over the past decades. It started as something simple, a way to connect people and tribes, and has morphed into a phenomenon that has kids excluding themselves from society, while at the same time bonding them through different mediums of music.


Most people won’t remember back to the days of slavery where slaves sang songs to unite them and keep their spirits high. In fact, most people won’t even remember around the turn of the century when vaudeville took over the stage. A majority of the people will remember the good old days of country music, with artists like Patsy Kline and Johnny Cash, being taken over by that darned rock and roll, with emerging artists like the Beetles. Since then, other genres like alternative rock, heavy metal, rap, and so on, have spilled onto the scene. With new and emerging music all the time, who is the clientele?


It used to be that music was just something for fun. It was great to sit around and listen to music, but it wasn’t a priority. Working, making money, and taking care of the family was the priority. Of course, music was also geared more toward adults. Nowadays, music is geared more toward children and adolescents than adults because adolescents are driving the market. Their tastes in music and choices are driving what sells and how the music is geared. No adult in his or her right mind is going to hand a wall clock around his or her neck to follow the 1980’s rap sensation, Run DMC. Just as no male adult is going to walk around with baggy pants with boxers hanging out, or no female adult is going to show in public with hip hugger jeans and a thong showing. Music leads fashion and teens follow fashion fads. Presumably, once adolescents mature into adults, they stop following fashion trends led by music artists.


If one were to look at adolescents these days versus even twenty years ago, there are huge differences. In the 1980’s, listening to music was contained primarily to driving in a car, using a personal walkman, or listening to the radio/cassette player in ones bedroom. For the extreme music listener, walking around with a boom box on one’s shoulder would be more in order. However, those days are over. Teens these days are obsessed with music. Rarely is a teen seen without music around them. It is in their phones, their CD and MP3 players, cars, rooms, and computers. There are no quiet havens anymore. Teens sit with headphones on at the dinner table, the classroom, and virtually everywhere they are. Adolescents these days cannot be separated from their music.


What is the new draw to music? Why has this become an epidemic? Does today’s music really focus in more on teenage issues, at least more so than it did twenty years ago? To an adult listener, the answer may be no. Adults don’t think teens can be “gangsters” with Bently cars, mansions, and grills (mouths) full of gold and sliver. Adults don’t think teens can experience the deep passionate love that leads kids to sex and sometimes betrayal. Adults don’t see teens being mature enough to make decisions about religion, anti-religion, or anything important in their own lives. However, adults do see teens as susceptible to major influences which then make teens want to be like the idealized icon. And who sells this “product”? The media!


In order to look at the influence of music, one must first look at the evolution up to this point. Outside of seeing performers live, radio was the next big movement. From there, television intervened and produced a whole new market. Now with digital technology, computers, I-pods, and MP3 players are the new wave.


The Influence of Radio:

Once music went over the wires, how people incorporated music into their lives changed. It was no longer an activity restricted to going out. The invention of the radio brought along the ability to have music in one’s personal space; thus, making music more personal. There was now no need to go outside of one’s home to enjoy music. However, the more personal music began to get, the more it isolated people. More specifically, the more it began to segregate the races and cater to just one group. Over the years, though, and with the addition of new types of music, the opposite became true. Music brought people together, crossed the lines of race and integrated a land full of different people.


Crossing the Racial Lines:

Radio became a great dividing line between the races. It’s not to say that only one race held music spiritually; it’s to say that music catering to Caucasians predominated quite heavily over music directed toward African Americans. Caucasians had “rock” while African Americans had “gospel”, “blues,” and “slave laments.” It can be presumed that both races had no issues listening to another’s music, but what is definite is that the presence of media made it difficult to be public about liking another race’s music.


Around the end of World War II, in 1948, African Americans earned the right to be desegregated within the realms of the Armed Forces. This new taste of freedom altered their music. What was once considered “race music” was now taking on tune. African Americans began putting more of their history and spirit into their tunes and the lyrics echoed their actual realities. The actual music became more aggressive, while the lyrics grew to be more risky. The lyrics talked about hush-hush topics such as sex and alcohol. The beat was called R&B. It was quicker and lent itself more easily to dancing. The primary audience to this new sound was White teenagers and Urban Blacks.


This did not break down the racial barriers, though. All it did was allow the media to take one type of music and purposely manipulate it to cater to another crowd. Caucasians were listening to the new African American beat and wanting it. Seeing this, the media took the songs flourishing within the African American communities and used White artists to cover them. For whatever reason, record labels preferred this. Some examples of this manipulations are: the Crew Cuts covered both the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and the Chords’ “Sh-Boom;” the McGuire Sisters covered “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Well It’s Time To Go” by the Spaniels.


What the record producers didn’t know what that instead of “catering” to the needs of their Caucasian listeners, they really produced the desire to hear the real renditions of the songs. In essence radio listeners realized they were being duped and wanted the original versions. Eventually radio DJ’s caught on to this craze and began playing the R&B music, but labeled it as “Rock n’ Roll” to signify that it was for Blacks and Whites.


This new rock n’ roll genre served to unite all races. Its common thread was the idea of rebellion. Teenagers of any color could relate to the idea that the lyrics and type of music went against what their parents wanted or experienced. Radio stations accommodated these new desires because it’s the youth that drives the media’s market. Though this new genre united the races, it did not end the reigns of segregation. In fact, it only served as a stepping stone into new genres, genres that would go through this same evolution.


The Movement of Hip-Hop:


Hip-Hop went through a similar transformation of cultural lines with the radio at the heart of its changes. Where R&B figuratively ended in the 1960’s, Hip-Hop had its birth in the 1970’s. This beginning, like that of R&B, was contained within the African American culture. It started in the parks of New York with one Black man spinning combinations of records. The mixed beats started the genre of Hip-Hop and its rhythm caught on very quickly.


Once these rappers and performers started to air on the radio, they were known by their DJ’s first, and performer second. Around the 1980’s this began to change and the performers were known first, and DJ’s became less important. One theory for this is that in the beginning, the music came first, while later, the lyrics became more important.


Hip-Hop quickly transformed into the genre “gangster rap” when songs like “F--- the Police” and “Cop Killer” became popular. Though “F--- the Police” was never aired on the radio, it remained at Number One for over ten weeks. Audiences were listening to it via the underground. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_music) The media became concerned with the message intensifying from tolerating, but hating the police, to actually suggesting something be done about it. Thus, adding the action and suggestion to the lyrics, and given who the rappers were, gave the nation “gangster rap.” Teenagers everywhere loved it.


When teens make a genre popular, the media can’tbut try to profit in some way. Radio producers started fashioning performers with a gangster style. The style showed itself to be one of giving the impression of a hard life, having grown up in the slums of some city, etc. Though the original rappers really did fit this profile and their music spoke to the people, by the 1990’s, the persona was almost purely fictional, but the music still spoke to its listeners. Today, the gangster character is just for show and the music has nothing to say. However, radio stations play the music (the edited version, of course) because that is what the public wants.


The Hip-Hop genre is no longer about feelings and showing less informed people about what hard-life realities exist. It is about a danceable beat and catchy refrain. Why this negative transformation happened is unclear, but, like with R&B, it just means that another type of genre is on the rise.


For teachers interested in bringing the history of Hip-Hop and Spoken Word to the classroom, Frank Sentwali and his “Edu-Poetic Entertainment” is a captivating and thought-provoking program for learners of all ages and applications. For more information see his Official Site or

A Bio from Young Audieces of Minnesota


In order for students to look at the transformation of Hip-Hop through the years, choose a song from each era (1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000). Have students follow the lyrics as they listen to the music—make sure to bleep out any profanity from the newer songs. After listening to each song, try to pinpoint if there is any central theme or message for the intended listener. If not, determine if this is a song just meant for dancing. Key things to look at here would be the depth of the lyrics, what is being said and how often the refrain is being repeated. If a song only has 30 seconds of lyrics and two minutes of refrain, then most likely it is more of just a dance song. However, if the reverse is true, then it contains a meaning. By doing this, students should see that the transformation of Hip-Hop is really a deterioration of meaningful messages about how tough life can be and an increase in talk about sex, drugs, violence and being nothing more than just dance music.


Some artists to look at: Run DMC, MC Hammer, Chamilionaire, Snoop Doggy Dog, TLC, and Lil Kim




The Influence of Television:

Television was an incredible step forward not only for the artists and their video creators, but also for advertisers looking for a new venue. Television changed popular music in other ways as well, such as the need for concerts. Concerts didn’t need to be limited to an arena or other location and seats were no longer limited. Artists could now play to both a large audience live, as well as play to viewers watching from the comfort of their own living room. Both, of course, were at a cost, though an actual concert ticket was more expensive than watching it on TV. On the downside, though, the musician-fan relationship has changed in that artists don’t perform live as much and so they are more distanced from their fans.


MTV introduced itself to the world in 1981, pulling the music industry out of a two-year slump. The use of radio was distancing the listener from his/her music, despite the convenience of having music within arms reach at all times. By 1979, listeners felt that they were lacking something and the media knew just what they wanted. The first video to air on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star.” A very appropriate video considering that that is exactly what happened. Video did kill the radio star because new hits were being introduced on MTV rather than on the radio, television was airing multimedia events, and listeners chose to become visual participants instead of just audial.


Advertisers were not about to let this new media go untouched. It was yet another way for companies to get their products across. At first, it was very evident that advertisers had not gotten a hold of this medium because videos were more about the song’s story—about creating a visual picture for the music. Frames were filmed with the intent to create a wordless drama. However, it didn’t take long for the advertisers to invade. Soon, prominent companies had special placement of their products. Artists were wearing clothing for companies and filming crews were doing close-ups just for pure product placement. In the beginning, it was subtle, but there’s no need for that anymore because advertisers just want to bombard their viewers with their products. Why is this allowed? For the simple fact that the artist, his/her company, and the advertiser profit from this feature. Viewers see the product and want to emulate the artist; they, in turn, will buy the product. The advertiser pays the artist and his/her respective company for the “space” to showcase the product. Everyone wins…well, except the viewer. The viewer is just being manipulated as a result of this recreational activity.

Aside from music videos, the introduction of Satellite has created a new type of “radio.” Listeners can receive the radio through their television. Sometimes this is at an additional cost, but most times it comes standard with a paid cable set-up.



Students should be able to critically analyze a video in terms of meaning and façade. For this, students should take a video from an artist that they like. Logging onto the Internet, students should go to the MTV website, look it up, and take notes while watching it. They should make notes on different products they visibly see (such as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, Ford, etc). While noting the product and its placement, they should determine whether it would quality as direct “product placement” or “coincidence.”

Second, students should view the video as if it were a digital storyboard. What visual message is given to the viewer opposed to the lyrical message? Do they coincide? Are they contradictory? It is important to point out to students that sometimes the two are completely unrelated, especially with current videos. Recent videos tend to lean more towards enhancing an artist’s image rather than illustrating the music.


The impact of MTV: MTV put an added importance on marketing and an emphasis on the visual.


The Way the music died: A look at the impact that MTV has had on the music industry.







The popularity with Internet downloading music toward the end of the 1990’s led to issues involving Piracy. Napster, software that allowed people to search other hard drives for MP3 stored music, showed just how popular Internet downloading has become. Before it was shut down, there were 2.8 billion downloads a month (Baron, 2004). With file sharing potentially costing record companies billions of dollars, the record companies took Napster to court and brought them to bankruptcy in 2002 (Baron 2004). This led to industry-approved downloading and P2P downloading. P2P downloading (Limewire, Morpheus, Bearshare) is “person-to-person software that permits direct Internet-based communications or collaboration between two or more personal computers while bypassing centralized servers” (Baron 2004). The record companies had little success controlling this type of music distribution and sharing. In 2003, Apple Computers put out iTunes and since then, has taken off. “In the first half of 2003, more than 600 U.S. brick-and-mortar music stores closed their doors” (Baron 2004).



Students will be interested in voicing their opinion in regards to file sharing. File sharing is where students can obtain music (sometimes free of charge) via the use of the computer. Companies, such as Napster, help people obtain music files from other computers on the network. Lawsuits have ensued over whether this should be legal or if this is considered “stealing.” The issue never came up when people used to use cassettes to tape music from the radio and “dub” the tape for their friends. Is it illegal now because it can be traced?


For this lesson, students can either write an informal journal entry voicing their opinions and their possible solution to the problem, or there can be a more formal essay in which students research the pro’s and con’s of shared music folders.





Why is music important? Well, because music is big. Music is all around us. We all love it, live it, and cannot escape it. There are songs that entire generations identify with. Most of us probably have songs that make us want to dance, songs that make us want to cry, and songs that make us want to sing. We even have little annoying songs that seem to stick into our heads. Music is attached to historical events, social movements, and controversy. Music has been used as forum of expression for young people to speak out about joy, love and anger. Because teens have very little power, their music is filled with themes of rebellion and has given teens a voice. For many teens, music is their media of choice.





The question is, “where is the line?” The line that you just can’t cross. The line that tells society, “the things you are doing have gone too far.” Something that crosses the line is detrimental to society, clearly jeopardizes the safety of its people, or takes the rights away from the majority. When we talk about music the line is called censorship and where that line may appear is still in discussion. Teachers can center their lessons around the limitations of the First Amendment and the issue of obscenity.


In 1985, several wives of famous politicians formed the group, Parents’ Resource Music Center (PRMC) in order to help parents make more informed decisions about the music their children were listening to. Most notable to this group were Tipper Gore (wife of Al Gore) and Susan Baker (wife of James Baker). The PRMC enabled record companies to solicit inappropriate music to the targeted adolescent consumers. Beginning in 1990, albums and CD’s needed the mandatory warning label saying that the music contained explicit and inappropriate language. Other targeted music contained dangerous themes and messages such as: suicide, sex, violence, eroticism, homosexuality, and sadism.


Despite the critics who believe that this type of censorship will ripple its way into a larger problem, the PRMC believes they are making a difference, have helped clean up the music industry and made it safer for those “susceptible” teens that constantly listen to music. However, critics are eager to point out that the censorship has already led to more severe restriction control. Some even go so far as to say that music with even the slightest hint of a political message is being banned.


Ever since the formation of the PRMC, there has been a push in the legislature for the “Erotic Music Bill” which would have restricted the sales of any music with a warning label. This, however, was deemed unconstitutional. Of course, repeated attempts to restrict the sales of stickered music have not stopped, nor will it probably ever. Though no legislature has been successful yet, they have been successful in calling for larger government oversight of musical content.


The question comes up, then, how effective are the warning labels? Do they serve their purpose in informing parents of the explicit content? How many parents are aware of what their children listen to? On the other hand, do the warning labels make the music more appealing to teens because it is “forbidden”? In this day and age, it is hard to answer that question.




A debate is the best way to teach censorship—every student has an opinion. This assignment could be as simple as sticking to the actual topic: What kind of music, if any, should be censored? Who should be the one to dictate what gets censored or not. However, students could branch off of this topic and explore other issues such why recent music is subject to more censorship as opposed to latter years. Are today’s lyrics really more vulgar; or are we less tolerant? Do those in charge feel as if younger listeners are not mature enough to handle some lyrical information or are we protecting those listeners? Other topics along those lines would lend themselves well to this type of debate.


In this lesson, a teacher could modify the lesson to teach the actual basics of good debating, rather than just letting the two pairs argue their points. These basics would include mapping the arguments, setting up an initial statement, note cards for possible counter points, etc.


Here's a great resource on how to teach classic debate





-Protection vs. Censorship

-Pure vs. Symbolic Speech

-The Rights of Teens vs. The Rights of Adults

-Student Rights in the School vs. Rights Outside of the School

-Social Freedoms (Liberal vs. Conservative)





2 Live Crew: Lyrics deemed illegal/Arrested at a Florida concert (Obscenity)


N.W.A. and Ice T (Black Voices Silenced)


Ozzy Osbourne (Art on Trial): McCollum et. al. v. CBS, Inc., et. al.


Judas Priest (Subliminal messages): James Vance v. Judas Priest


Marilyn Manson: Concerts halted by authorities and linked to the influences on the Columbine shooting and teen suicides.


Eminem (Warning Labels): Homophobic and misogynistic lyrics.





Recording Industry Association of America



Information on Parental Advisory



Censorship Lesson Plan


A List of censored songs



Rock Out Censorship



Federal Communications Commissions




Music is constantly changing with the times. Popular music is changing along with the events of the world. Songs have meanings and they hold their meanings. We are able to place ourselves in certain places when certain songs come on. Music can serve as theme songs for social events or movements. Students can use music and lyrics to analyze hisorical events, social impact, social issues, and influence on culture.




Hippie Counter Culture Movement


1960’s Anti-War Movement (Protest Songs)



Hip-Hop and Politics (Conscious Rap):


Public Enemy


Politics and Rock Lessons



Live Aid/Farm Aid/Live 8/Other Benefits:

Students can use music to analyze social activism and other causes.



Overview of Lesson Plans

: In this lesson, students consider the fate of jazz music after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. They then research and evaluate the “life cycles” of various music genres born in the United States.


Musical interpretation: Music will mean different things depending on who is singing the song and when the song is being sung. Students can compare and contrast musical cover songs to their original. Have students keep in mind of what may be going on in history when the song was originally written and what is going on now.


Key questions may include: How does the message change when the song is done by a different artist in a diffferent time? How does it change when the artist switches from male to female? How does each version of the song make you feel? How do the artists use the words to communicate?


Possible cover songs to compare:


Hound Dog: Elvis and Big Mama Thornton

Believe: Cher and Macha & Bedhead

Rocking in the Free World: Neil Young and Pearl Jam

Hurt: Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash

Respect: Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin

Signs: Five Man Electrical Band and Tesla





How are women portrayed in the music lyrics and music videos? Look at the messages being delivered by todays media. Students can also look at the “male gaze” and discuss how men portray women in music videos.




Women as sex objects

Female Sexuality

Body Image





Girls, Women + MediaProject


In the Mix. For grades 7-12. Students will listen to and read lyrics from popular songs that explore themes of self-esteem, body image, and eating disorders. The song interpretations will serve as a jumping-off point to deeper discussion on the issues, culminating in a writing exercise.


Contributed by Nate Schultz


Music Videos: Students can also analyze how certain music videos are constructed to give it a certain feeling or meaning. Students can look at films techniques such as lighting, sound, shots, angles, color, and editing.


Wikipedia's List of Film Techniques



Fiona Apple and Criminal





Baran, Stanley. Introduction to Mass Communications: Media Literacy and Culture.

New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.


Swiss, Thom. Class Presentation. 30 Nov. 2006.

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