Message in the Music

Marcia Forbes PhD

How often have we wondered just what some of the lyrics of these songs are saying? I remember sitting in a board room with a group of media managers trying to interpret the words of one of Missy Elliott’s songs. “If you’re worth it, let me work it” something like that. Those were the only few words of the song I actually knew but the rhythm was so infectious that I sang my own version of lyrics each time I heard the song.

The board room exercise of deciphering lyrics was highly productive. I realized that sections of the song actually had the words in reverse or some kind of gibberish format to add to the novelty factor and attract the youths. Some years later as I displayed my first research publication with lyrics from some of the more popular DJs highlighted on the front cover, a senior banking CEO expressed shock as she read Vybz’s Kartel lyrics from his Tek song. She exclaimed, ‘But this is sexual violence, this is rape’.
From these two examples it is clear that adults very often do not understand the lyrics of many of our present day popular hits, whether local and foreign. But do young people understand them? After all, these songs are designed to specifically target them. A research study in Botswana highlighted the ignorance of the youths in that country when it came to American songs. Although they were quite sure they knew the words, what they thought was said and what was actually said in the songs did not match up. 
But it’s not just the actual words, on top of that are the layers of meaning and the nuanced ways of interpreting lyrics within a particular context and at a specific socio-historical moment. Take the current matter of the number 2. In Jamaican parlance we all know that number has always been associated with the act of defecating. From that it has now evolved to take on a new meaning intimately linked with homosexuality. The evolution is understandable.   For someone outside of Jamaica, however, our DJ’s seemingly irrational fear of uttering this number may seem childish and even stupid.
To tap into the extent to which our adolescents actually knew the lyrics of the videos they watched, I asked them to indicate this by way of a scale. Did they know all, most, some, a few or none of the words of the music videos they liked best?  Almost three-quarters (72.5%) of them said they knew ‘all’ or ‘most’ of the words. Another 17.5% knew ‘some’ of the words, 8.2% knew only ‘a few’ while 1.4% said they knew ‘none’, see Table 1.
I know the expressions are descriptive and except for ‘all’ and ‘none’ are subjected to individual interpretations. That’s a limitation I will have to live with. All research projects have limitations. The best a researcher can do is work to keep them to a minimum and when they do occur, state them upfront and be careful to discuss the ways in which these limitations can colour the findings and or interpretations of them.
Table 1
Knowledge of Lyrics of Favourite Music Videos
Level of Knowledge of Lyrics
Percentage of Adolescents
Know all the words
Know most of words
Know some of words
Know few of words
Know none of words
So we have a high percentage of young people who believe they know the words of their favourite music videos. Are they like the Botswanans and believe they know but really don’t? I suspect not since one of the primary reasons our young people give for watching videos is to actually learn the words of the songs. 
Overall almost 84% of the 447 adolescents surveyed gave this as a reason for watching. When this is broken down into males and females, we see that females rely more on the videos to learn the lyrics (females 86% versus males 81.5%). But what role does age play in this reliance on videos to teach them the lyrics? Table 2 breaks this down.
Table 2
Watching to Learn Lyrics – Based on Age & Gender
Age in Years
% Difference
Girls at all age, but especially the 14 (96.7%) and 15 year olds (91.3%), depend on the videos as a lyrics teaching aide. But it is the 17 year old boys who most depend on videos for this. Almost all of them (99.7%) indicated that they watched music videos for this reason. This is useful information for parents. Unlike the older folks who may not have a clue as to what the lyrics are saying, the youths are well informed.
When this is coupled with the fact that so many of them watch videos without parents or other adults around, we understand that adults are really being left behind in the lessons their children are learning from music videos. Children are almost as likely to watch videos in their own bedrooms (31.7%) as in the living/family room (34.6%) where adults may or may not be present. Very few children watch videos in their parents’/guardians’ room (8.2%). As watching television becomes less of a family affair, even less children will watch with parents/adults.
What I found really interesting were the responses to an open-ended question which asked respondents to state any other places not included in the list where they watched videos. Seventy six responses were generated. Of this amount 84% indicated that music videos were watched in public passenger transportation, either the bus or taxi. So it is not just the music that these vehicles play, it’s videos as well. And we can bet they are dancehall music videos since this genre is extremely popular. But then too, this is the genre which is most likely to make adolescents feel to have sex.
Over the past few years we have increasingly heard of sex in buses and taxis. Taxi drivers keep school girls as ‘sweethearts’ and frequently parents know and endorse this. There is message in the music. But as adults we’ll never know if we continue to ignore the lyrics. We need to get beyond the ‘boom’, ‘boom’, ‘boom’ of the rhythms and actively engage our minds with the lyrics. It may just be a good idea for parents and guardians to sit in the living/family room with the young people while they watch. You might be surprised what you learn.