My eleven-year-old son has taken to singing the strangest of songs around the house lately.
“I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it’s free
I want your love
I want your love.“
Brand me a troglodyte, but I must be the only parent on the planet who did not know that those are the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s disturbing number one hit Bad Romance. Since I don’t listen to FM radio, I have not been privy to the pleasures of receiving Gaga’s not-so-subliminal sado-masochistic messages or reveling in her neo-feminist mystique.
My son is a bright, happy child who attends a modern orthodox Jewish junior high school, where religious instruction and studies take pride of place with secular studies. The modern orthodox credo is that religion and modernity are compatible and that secular pursuits and religious observance can be balanced in a way that gives young modern Orthodox Jews the potential to succeed in life without losing their moral or religious bearings.
Yet the insidiousness of modern secular music, with its messages weighted with innuendo, misogyny, violence and moral transgression, is not so easily thwarted. It takes me back to my own school days and discovering that Lou Reed’s Walk On the Wild Side, a song we all innocently hummed along to back then, was focused on the adventures of a transsexual. At the same time I was informed that a few years earlier, the Kinks’ Lola, a song I had loved, had traversed the same territory. The 70s involved a slippery descent of popular music into the realm of outright seaminess with recording artists offering us simulated orgasms, paeans to androgyny and the invocation of satanic prayers. Despite years of exposure to the music, I never ceased to be disturbed by its slide into decadence.
It was hard to believe that much worse was to come.
While trading on fetishist fantasies and sado-masochistic impulses has been a long time avocation of pop queens such as Madonna and Christina Arguilera together with goth rockers such as Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper, Lady Gaga has taken outrage to a new level. Her songs and videos don’t just celebrate sexual deviance, they actively encourage bondage, rape and torture, laced with the understanding that this is what a woman truly wants.
In the music video that accompanies Bad Romance, Gaga is seen dancing provocatively before a group of gangsters, imploring them for “their revenge” and posturing that “she doesn’t want to be their friend.” The video ends with a shot of Gaga on an ash covered bed, with the charred remains of what one supposes was her lover. Gaga is smoking nonchalantly, while her brassiere emits the final bursts of flame that have apparently just incinerated the victim.
Is it Gaga then who has the final “revenge?” It doesn’t seem to matter all that much. The point made is that sexual dominance is the order of the day and that sex, rather than a form of emotional connection between a man and woman is nothing more than a dangerous power play with the focus being on who will dominate whom.
Perhaps it is evidence of a prudish spirit, but I am as concerned with the influences that populate my childrens’ imaginations as I am with their scholastic achievements. I have tried to wean them off mindless 21st century television with DVDs of mindless 60s television (You’ll have to admit that Hogan’s Heroes and Gilligan’s Island – for all their vacuousness – are at least blessed with sexual restraint and minimal violence). Yet at some point, I have realized that, short of placing mufflers on their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, not much can be done to prevent their exposure to images that young children should never hear nor witness.
Part of our problem may be that studies reveal that children rarely pay attention to lyrics from a song on the radio but do pay attention when that song is accompanied by a video where they can see the lyric’s messages acted out. In this study from 2003 it is stated that:
” Videos with many violent images have been shown to increase aggressive
attitudes, including antagonism toward women and acceptability of violence
both for themselves and in others (Greeson & Williams, 1986; Hansen &
Hansen, 1990b; Johnson, Jackson, & Gatto, 1995; Peterson & Pfost, 1989).
In a study of seventh and tenth graders, those who viewed 30 minutes of
music videos with high concentrations of sex, violence, and antiestablishment
themes showed higher approval of premarital sex than did similar participants
who viewed 30 minutes of videos randomly taped off of the air.”
So while the marriage of video and audio recordings has been a boon for artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga, it has been disastrous for parents seeking to protect their children from such influences.
What remains is the determination of parents to defy the prevailing zeitgeist – to give their children a moral education that focuses on modesty, temperance and a deep respect for individual privacy. Although I have never thought about it before, that is the way my brothers, sister and I were raised – which almost certainly accounts for my shock, at the same age my son is now, upon hearing Lou Reed’s seminal song.
It would seem to me that inspiring in our children that same sense of shock, couched as it is in value judgments and a clearly articulated moral world view, is at least as important to their future as their absorption of history, mathematics and science at school.