The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 19, 2014 |


Sing a song of bad pence

Lyrics that focus on violence and sex can be harming your child. Varuna Verma says that abusive words in songs can lead to aggressive behaviour

  • THE NEW COOL? The music of singers such as Honey Singh (above) and Mika (top right) seem to encourage negative emotions

Every afternoon, when M. Madaswamy broke for lunch, he would find students of a neighbouring school leaving for home after class.

Two years ago, he noticed that a group of boys was particularly disruptive. "They'd sing Kolaveri Di whenever girls passed by. I could see the girls getting embarrassed," Madaswamy, a postal officer at Peermade in Kerala's Idukki district, recalls. The Tamil song then was an Internet sensation.

In Tamil, kolaveri means killer rage. The song also refers to a girl with a "dark heart". Madaswamy joined the dots and in 2012 filed a public interest litigation in the Kerala High Court, asking for the song to be banned. "I argued that the lyrics would nurture violence and aggression-related thoughts in adolescents," he says.

The high court dismissed Madaswamy's petition, noting that there was no compelling correlation between violence and song lyrics.

Madaswamy's theory may not hold water in a court of law, but there are people who echo his fears. In 2003, the American Psychological Association said in a study of college students that "violent lyrics increase negative emotions and thoughts that can lead to aggression". Such music contributed to the development of aggressive personalities, it said.

Kolaveri clones abound in India's new-age music, as lyrics become increasingly explicit about sex, drugs and violence against women. Punjabi music is especially seen to be riding on violent lyrics. A recent hit, Gaddi moudan ge, by Mika celebrates hooliganism while Gippy Grewal's Gangster and Hathiyaar are about criminals and arms. K.S. Makhan's Badmashi and Preet Brar's Desi gun package violence as the new cool.

Parents of Yo Yo Honey Singh fans have been worried about the effect of his songs. In a 2007 track named Prostitute, he sings about having violent sex with a woman after forcing her to dance naked. Another song, Yaar Bathere, labels women as frivolous heartbreakers.

"New Punjabi pop songs are littered with words such as bandookan (guns) and daru (alcohol) and rap phrases like 'signal todah ge' (we'll break all rules) and 'chak laan ge' (we'll kidnap the girl)," says Punjabi singer Satinder Satti. But these songs, she fears, are the new youth anthems.

The apprehension is that the young will absorb these sentiments as the norm. "Over time, they will begin to take such acts and incidents casually," says Anubhuti Yadav, associate professor, new media, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. Yadav, who presented a paper on "Media violence and aggression among adolescents" at a Delhi University event in 2012, believes that exposure to sadism-laced lyrics could desensitise the youth to violence.

The problem, experts hold, is that the message comes via an immensely popular medium. In a cross-cultural study done in the US three years ago, young people were asked who or what they would turn to if they had a problem. Their first choice was music. Computers came second and people finished eighth.

An National Council of Educational Research and Training survey on media habits of students found that the majority was hooked to music — 48 per cent said they listened to music even while doing other activities.

"It is a rite of passage and often an entry into the popular clique in school," says Gaurai Uddanwadikar, child psychiatrist, Counseling India, Bangalore.

Yadav stresses that violence in music has a greater impact on children than films and TV programmes. "Movies and TV serials are long and therefore don't hold a child's attention. But songs and advertisements package their messages into a few seconds, so they register faster," she explains.

She saw this first-hand at a Delhi school some years ago — when the Bollywood song, Goli maar bheje mein (shoot through the head), was a new hit number. A Class III boy told another that he would hit him. "He made a pistol shape with his hand and placed it on the other boy's temple," the professor recalls.

Psychology experts, however, stress that violent lyrics alone do not result in aggressive behaviour. "What it does is evoke aggressive emotions," says Uddanwadikar. "An adolescent who is already feeling angry with the world can go to an escalated level of aggression after listening to such lyrics. But it will not affect children with healthy adaptive behaviours," she explains. The aggression, she adds, usually manifests itself as shouting, hitting peers, siblings and even parents, bullying in school and harming oneself.

Last year, a US-returned software professional couple took their 15-year-old son, Amit Nagpal, to Delhi's MindTraack Counseling. The family had moved West three years ago, where, after school, Amit would spend the whole day alone because his parents worked. "It was a new world for him and he had no one to talk to," says Bhavna Barmi of MindTraack. He soon got involved with boys who were into drugs and rap music.

"He wore headphones at home and sang lewd songs. He even began speaking to his parents in rap style, calling it cool," Barmi says. When Amit started stealing money to buy drugs, the family decided to head back to India.

In 1999, a US Senate committee conducted a study on "Children, violence and the media", which said, "A preference for heavy metal music may be a significant marker for alienation, substance abuse, psychiatric disorders, suicide risk, sex-role stereotyping, and risk-taking behaviours during adolescence."

Udayan Kamath, an 18-year-old Bangalore boy and a heavy metal music buff, aped his musical heroes. He even started alcohol and drug abuse. "He had no regard for authority, would stay out late and was hauled up for speeding on his motorbike," says Sulata Shenoy, child psychiatrist and director, Turning Point Psychological Centre, Bangalore. It took six months of counselling to get his life back on track. "One of the things we did was to get him to stop listening to heavy metal music," Shenoy says.

That would be music to Madaswamy's ears.