The good news for parents is that song lyrics about sex, drugs, violence and Satanism have little impact on the vast majority of teen-agers.
The bad news for educators is that most teen-agers can't accurately describe their favorite songs, suggesting that they are seriously lacking in literary skills to understand and interpret metaphors and symbolism.
Those are the conclusions reached by two Cal State Fullerton professors who surveyed nearly 300 Southern California junior high and high school students.
Preliminary results from a 40-page questionnaire administered last winter in four Orange County public and private schools are contained in a paper titled "Sex, Violence and Rock 'n' Roll: Youths' Perceptions of Popular Music."
"One thing that struck us with all the hearings in Congress and media attention on lyrics is that nobody asked teen-agers what they think," said Lorraine Prinsky, a Cal State Fullerton sociology professor who conducted the study with Jill Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of criminal justice.
Furthermore, Rosenbaum said, she had been asked by an Orange County Probation Department officer for research linking heavy metal and punk rock with juvenile delinquency, but they found that no such research exists.
In the questionnaire, teens were asked to name three favorite songs and give a brief description of what each is about.
Among the key findings:
--Of 662 songs students listed as their favorites, only 7% were perceived by those students as being about sex, violence, drugs or Satanism.
--The most popular single topic was love--at 26%--while the "other" category, which included songs about politics, growing up, life's struggles and other subjects, accounted for 34% of the songs described.
--Students were unable to explain 37% of the songs they named as their favorites.
"Even with the songs they are exposed to the most and listen to the most, they do not automatically pick up on all the messages," Rosenbaum said in a recent interview on the Fullerton campus.
Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," for instance, was often interpreted literally as being about "climbing stairs on the way to heaven." Those who named Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." as one of their favorite songs offered interpretations ranging from "It's about life in the U.S.A." to the belief that it refers to "the town Bruce Springsteen lives in."
Some even listed instrumental movie themes among their favorite songs and wrote descriptions of the film's plot.
"What we found is that specific lyrics seem to be of little consequence to most kids," Prinsky said. Instead, the study concludes, "the musical beat or overall sound of a recording is of greater interest to teen-agers."
That conclusion is disputed by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the organization whose campaign against controversial lyrics resulted last fall in an agreement with the record industry for a voluntary record labeling plan.
Although the Virginia-based group has not received a copy of the Cal State study, its administrative assistant, Jennifer Norwood, said Friday, "It's ridiculous to say that music does not have an effect on human behavior.
"In 'Eat Me Alive,' a Judas Priest song, that title is repeated 18 times in three minutes. In Kiss' 'Lick It Up,' that phrase is repeated 30 times in four minutes. I can't believe it's not getting through. It's getting into the subconscious, even if they can't recite the lyrics."
But Prinsky rejected the idea that lyrics reach the listener on a subliminal level, saying, "Good data on the subconscious indicate that it just doesn't work that way."
Students were also asked to rate 35 heavy metal, punk, R&B and mainstream rock performers on whether their songs involved sex, violence, drugs, the devil, love/feelings or other subjects. Most students answered that they didn't know which category the various groups' songs belonged in.
Based on the responses, Prinsky estimated that "in our sample maybe 2% or 3%" of all teen-agers devote their full attention to lyrics when listening to music. Most simply use rock 'n' roll as "background noise."
As a specialist in juvenile delinquency, Rosenbaum said, "My big concern is that parents aren't spending much time with their kids. They are entertained by TV and live in a different world, even from the one we lived in. That has a lot more to do with their lives than lyrics of songs. But parents don't want to take that responsibility. It's a lot easier to blame lyrics."
"The media have played up the negative aspects of rock music. We're hoping this will bring more balance to the picture," Prinsky added.
Their paper will be published later this year in the quarterly journal Popular Music and Society, she said, but its results are just the "tip of the iceberg" of information they'll be interpreting this summer, according to Rosenbaum.
And, yes, a copy of the paper is being sent to PMRC, Rosenbaum said.