August 24th, 2008

For the Strength of Youth—Music and Dance

I gave the following talk in another ward today:

photo credit: larskflem

Do you ever find yourself whistling along to a popular song on the radio without paying attention to the lyrics? Or have you ever heard a person justify their choice of music, saying that although the lyrics are inappropriate, they don’t pay attention to them, and just like the song because it has a good beat?

In For the Strength of Youth, we are instructed regarding music as follows:

Music is an important and powerful part of life. It can be an influence for good that helps you draw closer to Heavenly Father. However, it can also be used for wicked purposes. Unworthy music may seem harmless, but it can have evil effects on your mind and spirit.

Unworthy Music

What is unworthy music?

The Culture and Media Institute examined the lyrics of Billboard’s Top 20 singles chart from the 29th of February through the fifth of June of this year. During the period of the study, 50 different songs made the chart. Out of those 50, it was found that 22 (or nearly half) contained sexualized lyrics, seven referred to drugs, and six contained profanity.

The report cited several examples of these lyrics. Their messages and content would be enough to make your grandmother blush for weeks, or persuade the Bishop to intervene and focus on chastity and virtue in every church talk and lesson for the rest of the year. Not only were many songs suggestive, but a great number were highly derogatory and explicit.

Regardless of the rationalizations given, the lyrics of the songs we listen to will always affect us. In a day of iPods and satellite radio, we are bombarded with catchy tunes, rhythmic beats, and sultry voices. But it is the words—not the beat—that will leave a lasting impression.

In a study conducted earlier this year, researchers noted that the average youth listens to 2.4 hours of music per day. With the average television consumption at a staggering rate of four hours per day for adolescents, we’re left with an alarming picture of how many messages are being pushed onto our youth. This study noted that the average adolescent is exposed to approximately 84 references to alcohol and drug usage daily in popular songs.

A 2006 study noted that adolescent youth who listened to music with sexually suggestive and degrading lyrics were more likely to become sexually active at an earlier age. Consider the declaration of another study, this one conducted last year, showing the influence of music:

Music is known to be highly related to personal identity; young people often model themselves in terms of dress, character, and behavior after musical figures.(University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study, 2007)

A recent book on the subject of media consumption by children agreed:

For better or worse, then, lyrics and music videos are often attended to, processed, discussed, memorized, even taken to heart.

Unworthy music is all around us. For some musical genres, it is safe to say that a significant percentage of the new and popular songs are riddled with things that certainly fail the Latter-day Saint requirement of being “virtuous, lovely, or of good report”.

The Calculation of Unworthy Music

Elder Gene R. Cook gave an address on the subject of chastity at Ricks College in 1989. During his remarks, he shared a story about his encounter with rock star Mick Jagger that has become fairly well known. Part of the story, as Elder Cook tells it, reads as follows:

After we visited back and forth a minute or two about what we were doing and all, I finally said something like, “You know, Mick, I have a question for you that I’d like you to answer for me.” He said, “Well, I’ll be glad to try.” Then I said to him, “I have opportunity to be with young people in many different places around the world, and some of them have told me that the kind of music you and others like you sing has no effect on them, that it’s okay, and that it doesn’t affect them adversely in any way. Then other young people have told me very honestly that your kind of music has a real effect on them for evil and that it affects them in a very bad way. You’ve been in this business for a long time, Mick. I’d like to know your opinion. What do you think is the impact of your music on the young people?”

This is a direct quote, brothers and sisters. He said, “Our music is calculated to drive the kids to sex.” Those were his exact words. I’m sure I had a real look of shock on my face in receiving such a bold response. He quickly added, “Well, it’s not my fault what they do. That’s up to them. I’m just making a lot of money.”

Then he told me he’d been in Mexico making a video because he could make it for about one-third of what it would cost in the United States. He told me this was a great day for them because now instead of just having audio where they could portray some of what they wanted to about sex and all, they now had videos and could have the people both hear it and see it portrayed. He said this would have much more impact on the youth, that his music was selling much more, and thus he was making much more money.

Later in his remarks, Elder Cook says:

A few days after I arrived home, my wife and I were up late on a Friday evening. I turned the television on, or maybe we looked in the paper, and saw that there was going to be a Mick Jagger special on that night. Well, I’d never even watched anything like that before and I thought, well, let’s see what it’s like. So we sat up for an hour or so and watched his show. I was really taken back. Not so much by what I saw, as I expected that, but by all the innuendos sown in the lyrics of which a young person might not be very aware. Lyrics like, “Do what you want. No one can tell you what to do. You’re your own man. Take what you want. Pick what you want.” It was the same stuff I’d heard on the airplane for two hours—there were no rules in it, no God in it, no “what’s right” in it. It was, you do whatever you want to do. You’re free, you can take what you want, do what you want.

I was very much taken back by how those thoughts had been sown very subtly in all that music. Many young people would not realize how those thoughts are sown in. However, after listening to that music time after time, one can begin to parrot that kind of philosophy and those inward feelings to their parents and thus not be as obedient as they ought to be.

I hope that these stories have demonstrated the reality of what I read earlier from the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. To repeat, we are taught:

Unworthy music may seem harmless, but it can have evil effects on your mind and spirit.

We cannot underestimate the effect that music has on our thoughts, our desires, and our impulses. As the next line of the pamphlet tells us, we must “choose carefully the music [we] listen to.” Listening to the radio and allowing what’s new and popular to enter our minds implies that we have failed to proactively and carefully choose what we will listen to.

The Dangers of Dancing

When I was twelve years old and a new student at our local junior high school in San Diego, I wanted to go to one of the school-sponsored dances with a friend. This friend of mine was thirteen, and happened to be the Bishop’s son. He had received permission to go, but my mother still had not consented.

Confused as to what to do—after all, the Bishop’s son was planning to attend—she called her sister who reminded her of the age policy for church dances. My aunt then asked her if she thought school dances were better or worse than church dances. This wasn’t a difficult question to answer, and so my mom made up her mind. I did not attend the dance.

Parents: do you know what school dances are like? Do you know what type of dancing is common for such occasions? Or what type of clothing (or lack thereof) is featured? Now I’m originally from California, so our dances may differ from the ones here in Utah, but I doubt they differ by too much. Consider volunteering at the next school dance as a chaperone—what you see may startle you.

The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet says this regarding dancing:

Dancing can be fun and can provide an opportunity to meet new people. However, it too can be misused. When dancing, avoid full body contact with your partner. Do not use positions or moves that are suggestive of sexual behavior. Plan and attend dances where dress, grooming, lighting, lyrics, and music contribute to a wholesome atmosphere where the Spirit of the Lord may be present.

Young men and women: think of the dances put on at your schools, and the types of music, dancing, clothing, and behavior you might see there. Do you think that that atmosphere is a wholesome one where the Spirit of the Lord may be present?

When I was at the age when I could begin going to dances, the peer pressure was overwhelming. Proms, homecomings, and other dances would come and go year round, and there was always a frenzy to figure out who would ask whom to which dance. Then there was all the commotion about tuxedos and dresses, many of them quite immodest. Add onto that the limousines, the pre- and post-dance activities, the photos, and all the money spent, and the dances often changed from simple, fun activities to highly elaborate social events.

One of my brothers recently attended a school dance that he now regrets going to. His date, who is not a member of our faith, chose to wear an immodest dress. He didn’t know this would happen, and spent the entire night a little embarrassed to be with her. He spent a hefty amount of money on the night’s activities, and now wishes he would have saved the money instead of going to the dance. For him, the activity was not harmless and entertaining—it was socially draining and a waste of time and money.

Of course, not all dances turn out this way. Though I, like my brother, afterwards considered the dances to be a waste of my money and a bad environment to be in, there are many who enjoy themselves and create lasting memories with good friends. But regardless of our individual experiences, it is becoming increasingly clear that many dances—whether at school events, clubs, or elsewhere—fail to create “a wholesome atmosphere where the Spirit of the Lord may be present.”

If we are merry

In Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord gives us some instruction regarding music. He says:

If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. (D&C 136:28)

In apparent contrast, we read in the Book of Mormon how music and dance were used negatively. Describing some of the events occurring on their ship as they traveled to the promised land, Nephi states:

And after we had been driven forth before the wind for the space of many days, behold, my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power they had been brought thither; yea, they were lifted up unto exceeding rudeness. (1 Nephi 18:9)

Do you see the difference in these two verses? In the first, the Lord instructs us that music and dancing are to be used as an expressive art form to indicate our happiness. In the second, however, we read of Laman and his cohorts using music and dance to ignore God’s guidance in their lives and treat their shipmates harshly. Why the discrepancy?

Note that the Lord states that music and dance are acceptable forms of praise “if thou art merry”, or in other words, if used as an expression of our current feelings of happiness. In contrast, Nephi indicates that his brothers were using music and dance “to make themselves merry”. Why the distinction between the two?

Perhaps the answer can be found in comparing these two actions to prevalent ones in our own day. Think of what it means to be truly happy, or, put more simply, to have joy. Such a state of being, though interrupted at times by trials, is long-lasting and powerful. It permeates our lives and brings us an underlying sense of peace throughout all we do. On the other hand, think of the world’s conception of happiness. Consider the lives of some notable celebrities who, as we’re told on TV, must be happy with their millions of dollars, multiple mansions, beautiful vehicles, and massive wardrobe. This version of happiness is nothing but a farce, for it is temporary, fraught with pride and selfishness, and rooted in worldly pleasures that usually are at odds with gospel principles.

Now think about the actions necessary to reach each goal. What must we do to receive lasting joy in our lives? King Benjamin gave one answer when he addressed his people:

…I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it. (Mosiah 2:41)

Living righteously is the only way to obtain true and lasting joy in our lives. It is then that we may celebrate such happiness in praise to God through music and dance. Our songs, dances, and other artful expressions become centered upon Christ and are used to convey our gratitude and love to that God who has granted us such lasting happiness.

On the other hand, the actions required to pursue the world’s version of happiness fall into the scriptural category of “eat, drink, and be merry“. These actions are void of any virtue and focus on our temporal circumstances alone. Just as happened with Nephi’s brothers, these actions distract us from God’s influence in our lives and lead us away from the path He would have us follow. In this setting, music and dance can be used as a form of entertainment to pursue feelings of instant gratification and worldly pleasure. Anybody familiar with music videos or rock concerts knows exactly how this works.

A spiritual barometer

Since music and dance are proper forms of expression of our enduring happiness, we should feel comfortable participating in such things if the Savior was standing next to us. This is, of course, the ultimate test of our spiritual barometer. If we as Saints are to be “witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places,” then our music must match our message. Imagine the Savior scrolling through your iPod; what would your reaction be?

Like many other things, music and dance can be used both for good and for evil. God gives tools and talents to His children, and then gives them the agency that allows them to choose how they will use those things. The ultimate test for what we do is to imagine the Savior standing over our shoulders, hopefully smiling in approval. If we imagine ourselves in such a scenario and think that we would skip over a certain song or behave differently, then that’s something we should do anyway, whether or not the Savior is literally standing by our side.

We who have covenanted to represent Christ must create a wholesome atmosphere where the Spirit of the Lord may reside. I testify that as we take a stand against unworthy music and suggestive dancing, we will have an added measure of the Spirit of our lives. Our ability to draw upon the powers of heaven and welcome the guidance of the Spirit depends entirely upon ourselves. By choosing this path, we will have plenty of reasons to be merry, and thus will be able to “praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving”.

9 Responses to “For the Strength of Youth—Music and Dance”

  1. DMC the Great
    August 24, 2008 at 8:55 pm #

    I’ll bet that Cook dude probably doesn’t like Britney Spears either.

    When they start making “righteous” music that’s worth listening to, then I’ll tune in.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep listening to the Stones, Ozzy, Beyonce’, and of course, myself.

    My name is DMC the all-time great
    I pack the most rhymes in the Beehive State

    Whoa, that was cool.

  2. Clumpy
    August 24, 2008 at 10:32 pm #

    What are you talking about? – There’s loads of music that manages to be both entertaining and/or artistically valid without glamorizing immorality as defined in the article.

    There are hundreds of examples (even without straying into the generally-vapid realms of Christian Rock), but listing acts to complement such an obvious point seems counterproductive.

  3. Reach Upward
    August 25, 2008 at 9:32 am #

    Great question about what we would think of the Savior scrolling through our iPod.

  4. Jeff T
    August 25, 2008 at 1:31 pm #

    The only things on my iPod right now are MoTab and philosophy lectures, so I think I’m safe… unless He disapproves of boring lectures about Plato.

    To DMC the Great,

    I second Clumpy’s comment. There is tons of great, clean music out there. It would be sad if, in the end, we continued listening to soul-rotting music merely because our “musical taste-buds” didn’t like the healthy stuff. Great excuse at judgment day: “But I liked the bad music, and I didn’t like the good music.”

    Personal preference doesn’t get us off the hook. If our preferences in music and entertainment lead us away from the Savior, we ought to adjust our preferences,rather than simply say “the good stuff doesn’t appeal to me.”

    Or an even better analogy: “As soon as they start making non-alcoholic beer, I’ll drink it. But until then, I’ll keep drinking it, because orange juice and water taste bland to me.”

  5. Jeff T
    August 25, 2008 at 8:00 pm #

    One more thing, DMC the great: The only reason they keep making bad music is because people listen to it. It does not good to just keep listening to the bad stuff waiting for them to make good stuff because, ya know, the market is decided by what people buy.

  6. Clumpy
    August 25, 2008 at 9:42 pm #

    Still, three cheers for soul-rotting music! Give me a zombie with ear buds any day:

  7. Janet
    August 29, 2008 at 9:54 pm #

    Great post Connor. Personally, I like the music that was written at least a hundred years ago or more:)

  8. David
    September 2, 2008 at 3:47 pm #

    My girlfriend just wrote a similar article that has the same concept. I think you guys should all check it out and leave her some constructive criticism.

  9. Shawn Phillips
    May 3, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    THANK YOU! I have waited for YEARS to see a young member of the church write something about THE MUSIC! I have been a PROFESSIONAL (RADIO, CLUBS, MAGAZINES ETC) for many many years and because I am LDS I cannot play popular music. I have been able to play gospel driven house music (not like techno or electro noise but music with lyrics about God) to smaller crowds. I made a living off of my DJ career and it has been the hardest thing in the world to not play pop (which brought in the money) anymore. Thanks for letting me witness your testimony on-line about the music!!!!!

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