It was one of those no-win situations. I’d been asked to speak at a stake fireside on the subject of pop music and morality, a highly sensitive topic at best. Unfortunately, the previous evening a member of the stake presidency had closed down the stake youth dance. In his judgment, the music and the youth had gotten out of hand.
I could feel the emotional intensity in the air as the young people filed in to sit on one side of the chapel and the adults sat on the other. No one wanted to hear a lecture; they wanted to air their thoughts about last night’s dance. I was bombarded by questions and comments from both sides:
“I’m sure the Lord is displeased when our youth dance to that loud, vulgar music in his own house.”
“You think it’s loud and vulgar because you don’t like it. Your parents probably thought your music was loud and vulgar.”
“Why don’t you kids learn to appreciate real music—classical music—instead of idolizing those immoral rock stars?”
“You think rock singers are immoral? Did you ever read about Wagner or Lizst?”
“But that’s different. Their music is beautiful and uplifting. It is good.”
“Boring might be a better word for it!”
One elderly brother stood to settle the whole matter. “I can’t always make out the words, but whenever I hear the sound of that electric geetar I know they’re singing about dope!” And with that he dropped back into his seat as if he had solved every issue.
A few nodded in agreement. Others snickered or laughed out loud. I was tempted to chuckle myself until I realized that he had made the most profound comment of the evening. He was literally right. To him, every song with an electric “gee-tar” was associated with dope. In his mind and memory, the electric “gee-tar” and dope were inextricably connected.
In each of our minds, certain kinds of music are tied deeply to our own experiences and emotions. Our favorite music has an intensely personal meaning to us. Memories of our childhood, first date, first love, youth conferences, prom night, testimony meetings, marriage, and old friends may all be tied to a certain kind of music in one way or another. Thus, when someone attacks our music, we may feel that they are also attacking our deepest, most treasured experiences.
Because our response to music is so intensely personal, it is difficult to be objective when discussing music and morality. Most discussions, in fact, fail to focus on the moral issues at all. Instead, they quickly degenerate into arguments about individual tastes in which we ascribe moral qualities to those things we like. In short, that which we like we call “good,” and that which we don’t like we call “bad.”
Parents and leaders of youth would do well not to point the finger at broad categories, such as “hard rock,” “pop,” or “country and western” for two reasons: (1) Categories are vague and mean different things to different people. (2) To discuss categories is to miss the entire point. Moral and immoral songs exist in nearly every kind of music, and attacking a specific category may lead a person to feel justified in listening to immoral music of another type.
For those confused by the issues involved in any discussion about music and morality, let me assure you that there is a way out of the confusion. It is possible to understand music’s incredible power, consider the moral issues raised by that power, and then look at the music of today in light of its moral consequences.
I’m not one to quickly condemn the music of our day. Popular music is my profession, and it’s one of the greatest enjoyments of my life. I come from a long history of involvement in popular music. My mother, Alyce King, was one of the four singing King Sisters. I began my musical training early. While I was in college I traveled with the King Sisters as their arranger and accompanist. Later I worked as the musical director for the Four Preps. In 1965 I began work with Capitol Records as a record producer. A few years later I was hired as an arranger and rehearsal pianist for The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on CBS television. In the seventies I created the music for Saturday’s Warrior, The Order Is Love, and My Turn on Earth.
Throughout all these years in the music business, I’ve learned that music has great power, both for good and for evil. And I’ve become increasingly concerned that that power is being used for evil in much of today’s popular music.