I have a younger cousin, Marcus, who, as most middle schoolers do, listens to the same music we teenagers do.
On a do-nothing summer day, in the months before I left for college, my sister and I visited our aunt. Marcus was receiving a whooping from our grandfather, a strong, old-school man with a fondness for discipline. We never knew what Marcus did to deserve his punishment. But when his chastening finished, he looked my grandfather in the eyes and said something that shocked us all: “When I get older, I’m gonna do a drive-by on you.” My grandfather paused.
“What you say to me, boy?”
My aunt, sister, and I all glanced between the two of them, unable to believe what was happening and unsure of what would come next. My grandfather jerked him up by the collar and said,“I’d like to see you try.” He dropped him onto the floor and turned away. How did we get here?
Most of us can recall the birth of the first modern music video. It was on August 1, 1981, and MTV had just launched onto millions of television screens. At 12:01 AM, MTV aired “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by The Buggles. The video was grainy, showing Trevor Horn, the lead singer, and the keyboardist, Geoffrey Downes, in silver blazers. Horn sung about technology bringing a slow death to the importance of radio.
And he was right. Radio eventually stood in the shadows of television’s skyrocketing limelight. Already a hit in the 1950s, television was extremely common in millions of households by the 1980s. Serving as a direct gateway to pop culture, children were more glued to TV screens than ever. So, in the same way these children would get their daily fix of detective shows and sitcoms, they were also taking large doses of fashion trends, music, and social norms—all thanks to the then-brand-new MTV.
MTV began a trend that caused music videos to soar in popularity. After the psychedelic video of The Buggles was shown on MTV, there were millions more videos played throughout the rest of the decade, each of a glimpse into the pop-music artistry which began to manifest in teen culture.
Throughout the 1980s, artists like Prince were on TV screens, wearing thick leather jackets, shingles dangling from the breast pockets. In the 1990s, when hip-hop had officially taken the stage, we saw a world of Aztec and African prints and musical activism. Even in the 2000s, when music stars thought wearing long-sleeved, floral shirts under neon tank-tops was humane (see Hillary Duff), music videos captured it all.
Throughout the development of music videos, kids and teenagers alike eagerly watched video after video, seeking something to be influenced by and express. With something as simple as fashion, music videos were a gateway for teens to understand culture and norms around them. And still today, kids take what they see presented to them to understand the world.
Over the past decade, there has been an influx of mediocre, sexist artists who, naturally, create mediocre and sexist music videos. With help from social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, music videos have become even more popular and accessible to tech-savvy teens across the country. As rappers like Chief Keef—a gang-banger known for shooting at the police and XXXTentacion, who has 15 felony charges against him regarding domestic violence—pop culture and show off their lifestyles to the world, teens begin to adopt their perspectives
In Chief Keef’s music videos, for example, he totes AK-47’s with a gang of men who look just like him—they are drinking lean, smoking weed, and threatening to kill or shoot whoever they feel like. In one music video for the popular song “Look At Me!”, XXXTentacion is in a classroom speaking about how he cannot “keep his dick in his pants” and throws dildos at the teacher while, in a later scene, two young boys face each other, one white and one black, and the black boy is encouraged to hang the white boy with a rope. The white boy gets hung on screen.
These are only two out of hundreds of artists, some already enjoying the spotlight, and some hustling to enjoy it too. In one form or another, teens see the same themes of drinking, smoking, violence, misogyny, and hyper-sexualization of women in these music videos. And as a result, the ideas of smoking weed or shooting somebody seems becomes normal.
No, little boys are not going to throw dildos at their math teachers because of XXXTentacion. No, adolescents do not sprint to the nearest Rite-Aid to make a fresh batch of double-cup. However, children do internalize what they consistently see. The Media Violence Commission says that consistent exposure to violent or aggressive media increases aggression, violent thoughts, and desensitization to violence in adolescents.
As the tension hung in the air and my grandpa turned his back on my cousin, I recalled every music video, every time my friends and I recited a mediocre song in our rooms as we got ready to go to a party or hang out, and every time I had seen a trigger finger motion, with or without a real gun. I sat stunned. My cousin was not 21 or 18; he was 12. To him, his threat was just something to say, a way to express his embarrassment or anger about getting disciplined.
But it was so easy for me to see beyond his troubled self-expression to the influences that normalized it. He was exposed to visuals of the very violence and aggression that made the thought of a drive-by as retaliation as rational as having an “attitude.” My cousin, in that moment, started looking and sounding like every artist, every classmate, every shooter, and every thug that I had ever seen or heard about.