The 1980s hit “You’re the Inspiration” makes me think of metallic streamers, balloon arches, and poorly permed hair, and that is precisely why I sent my sister an 80s music mix for her birthday this week. It’s a nice way to celebrate your thirty-something birthday, don’t you think? My children are thrilled with my foray into the cool music of my teens. My three-year-old now runs around singing “Highway to the Danger Zone”; my eleven-year-old has announced that “Summer of ‘69” is “awesome”; and my thirteen-year-old believes a number of the songs are “scandalous,” which I will respond to as soon as I learn whether that word is a compliment or disparagement.
Unfortunately, I must confess to all my young women’s leaders that, despite not hearing most of these songs in the last twenty years, I can still sing every single word. Yes, you told me that the lyrics would get in my head and be recorded there. Apparently you were right. Then there’s the emotional backwash: all I need is the first four measures of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” to be hearing, seeing, and smelling a Stake Dance in all its tangled, teenage glory (Is he looking at me? How do I look? Stupid?).
Of course, things are different now. When I hear, “Relax/ Don’t do it/ When you want to go to it,” I blush. Because now—unlike then—I have a bit of an idea what I am singing about. In my teens, I had a clue, too, but only because I was socially savvy enough to know that when those people liked the song and those people thought it was immoral, then the lyrics probably had to do with (ahem) it. But I didn’t really know what I was singing about. I had no idea.
Take “Kyrie,” for instance. One of my favorites. My sister and I would belt that out at the top of our lungs while zipping down the hill to high school in our red land cruiser and praying to find the last parking space by the seminary building. Hearing the song last week sparked a memory of reading that word in a book not too long ago, so I googled it. Now I know: all those years when I was singing, “Kyrie lays along the road that I must follow” and thinking that “Kyrie” was a nice name for a girl? Yeah. I was singing it wrong. Try this:
“Kyrie Eleison, the road that I must travel./ Kyrie Eleison, through the darkness of the night.”
“Kyrie Eleison.” That would be Greek for “Lord have mercy,” though I didn’t know it until twenty-four hours ago. It’s possible that I was the most incredibly naïve and unintelligent girl in school, but I have a feeling that no one else in my small town knew Greek that well, either. Some probably had the lyrics on the back of the record albums, but there was no googling back in the 1980s, so I doubt seeing the words helped them out that much. I only heard the song on the radio over and over again and sang along with what I thought the words were. I can’t think of one time that the words influenced me for good or somehow helped me choose the right—because I didn’t know what I was singing about. Now, knowing what it means, I find it quite moving; understanding brings me to contemplation, and that contemplation will perhaps influence my actions some.
So do lyrics influence malleable teens? Probably. But how much? Despite the fact that I “knew” every word to the hit songs of the 80s, I had no idea what they meant and probably sang the wrong words most of the time anyway. I’m wondering how much such words could influence me. I don’t want to make the argument that I should let my teenagers listen to whatever they want. That seems to be trusting moral safety to innate innocence, and that is ludicrous. But I’m pretty sure that bemoaning and bewailing the horrid lyrics of modern music is a sure way to tip off nice teenagers; now they know they’re singing something scandalous . . . even if they don’t understand what they know.