Have you ever questioned whether the media you consume subconsciously impact your mental and emotional psyche?

Personally, I regularly listen to music lyrics about relationship toxicity or emotional unavailability. “F-k everybody I can’t trust no body” (No Parties by Coi Leray), “so how I’m ‘posed to love, girl? Now how I’m ‘posed to fear? Yeah. I talk to b****** even when you right here. I text ’em in the room when we layin’ right next to each other” (Lullaby by Lil Uzi Vert), “your baby daddy f-king me and s-king me, he don’t answer you b-ch that’s because of me (period)” (Act Up by City Girls), or “baby girl, you’re not my main, you’re my side addition (My side piece), so I’m gonna’ need some “shh” when the wife is ringin’ (Ringin’)” (Back to Basics by Fredo).

Or sometimes I will go on social media and see posts such as the one below by the popular Instagrammer @justlinlaboy, about similar topics.

Controversial music or artistic freedom

Many people argue that you should not take these lyrics and posts too seriously. They are just a reflection of the creator’s past or present reality and/or personality. As someone who is in the process of making music myself, I also understand that a lot of creative content is ‘hyperbole’;  content that is an exaggerated form of the truth. Often, this type of content aims to provoke strong feelings and emotions, and should not be interpreted literally.

Then there is also ‘rap cap’. These are lyrics that are false and bear no truth to the person’s lived and actual reality.  Therefore, to blame our ‘trust issues’ on song lyrics, especially when we all possess personal agency and discernment, is problematic. This is very similar to the controversial assertion that drill music promotes criminality. An argument that I have always viewed as heavily rooted in classism and racism.

I should highlight at this point that the examples I have used earlier (Coi Leray, Lil Uzi, City Girls, and Fredo) are all taken from black artists. Important to understand is that white ‘mainstream’ artists rarely receive critique. Some white musicians could arguably also be accused of ‘promoting’ male toxicity, drug abuse, and even paedophilia in some of their songs.

Music therapy

The fact that music therapy is so widely used to help people overcome traumas, confirms that music is a powerful tool. It can profoundly impact our thoughts and feelings. Medical evidence demonstrates that music can have a deep effect on individuals. This ranges from helping to improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients to reducing symptoms of depression in patients suffering from dementia. It can even help patients who undergo surgery to experience less pain and heal faster. Research by Ronsom (2015) demonstrates that lyrics, when accompanied with music, can profoundly influence our wellbeing and emotions.

Many people believe that words have power; whether they are written, spoken, sung, or chanted. For this reason, they use affirmations and mantras to help manifest their desired reality. The ‘law of attraction’ is widely used as a spiritual practice. The research I mentioned earlier states that hearing messages repeatedly over time does affect the way we think about ourselves and others. This is an argument any minority community (race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality) can certainly appreciate. We know first-hand how repeated subliminal messages through different media forms can really impact the way the outside world perceives us. As well as, even more tragically, how it can create our own limiting beliefs about the Self.

Neon sign that reads: 'no music no life'
Photo by Simon Noh on Unsplash

The power of lyrics

From this perspective then, a repeated listening and signing aloud lyrics such as ‘F-k everybody I can’t trust nobody’ could consequently encourage us to be in a state of mistrust. But how long would one stay in this state? A song can perhaps consciously and/or subconsciously influence us to think a certain way. But it should never have the power to force us to permanently remain in this state. Real-life and past events play a larger role in determining such long-term behaviour. We are all subjective beings whose feelings and behaviour are largely a consequence of our unique past. Our reaction to certain lyrics will vary based on whether we have had positive experiences of emotional availability versus negative ones.

Take the lyrics ‘Break my heart’, by Dua Lupa for instance. “Am I falling in love with the one that could break my heart?” Some may see the lyrics as a sign of paranoia, others may see it as a genuine concern caused by rational, rather than imagined, fears. Psychologists highlighted the difficulties of measuring the influence of sad lyrics if accompanied by a happy beat. ‘Sad lyrics’ can also create a positive effect for the listener by making us feel understood by the artist. This makes us feel less alone in the world. Even the location of where you listen to a ‘sad’ song could impact your perceptions and their effects on you.

Trust issues

Similar to the arguments made about drill music then, this is a debatable issue with no absolute or clear-cut answers. The age group of the audience is also important. I have written this piece from the perspective of my own peer group (mid-to-late twenties).  We know that younger teenagers are the biggest consumers of music. They are the most impressionable and may be more inclined to ‘mimic’ and believe their favourite artists. Therefore, we need to reconsider this argument for younger listeners. Clearly, certain lyrics are not age-appropriate. They could pose a detriment to the emotional foundation of young listeners, in a way that it doesn’t for adults.

As Ronsom stated in her research, it is clear that “words make you think… music makes you feel…but a song make you feel thoughts”. The lyrics in songs can motivate us, comfort us, unite us, make us fall in love, raise our vibration and even heal us. Conversely, lyrics can cause hurt, suffering, division, and to feel demeaned and disrespected. Nevertheless, the answer to the question “do our favourite creators encourage us to have trust issues”, remains complicated. The psychological effect of regularly listening to lyrics about cheating or being cheated on seems to depend on several aspects. These are: personal lifestyle, past relationship experiences, personal cognition, the type of lyrics being said, the type of beat the lyrics are on, the age and maturity of the listener, and even the location of the listener.

Be responsible for your behaviour

However, the responsibility of controlling our emotions ultimately falls upon us. Therefore, we need to look at our habits and question whether the music we listen to contributes to the ten most commonly experienced positive emotions which make up our wellbeing: joy, grateful, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. If we are responsible for children and teenagers, we need to consider what type of negative or positive effect certain lyrics will have upon their personal development and general wellbeing.

This post shared to Twitter by @GreenToBlack_ resonates with me a lot:

I  also agree with a later post by American rapper Fabolous’s post, who said that  whilst “[…]the cool of this generation is being savage and not giving a f*** and all the rap songs say money over everything and everybody is sleeping with somebody else’s man or woman, […] having a partner to love, share life with, raise a family together with and make each other better is real Goals. That’s the real Cool […]” 

These days I  am making much more of a conscious effort to balance my listening habits. I now enjoy making playlists with higher frequency music. I choose to listen to songs that celebrate healthy, mutual and higher quality connections alongside the music which doesn’t. Even if it is hyperbole or ‘rap cap’, it may affect my psyche more positively. This is something that, especially during this pandemic, needs to be regularly maintained.