Every weekday morning, Surrattsville High School junior Brittani Brisco leaves her Clinton home to board the school bus. As it lumbers along, many students chatter in their seats, swapping stories about boyfriends and girlfriends, sports, clothes, friends - whatever. Sixteen-year-old Brittani doesn't really hear them. She's plugged in to her headphones; her portable CD player is churning out her favorite music. She may be listening to a tune recorded by her boyfriend, an 18-year-old high school student and emerging musician, or she may be playing go-go tracks by artists Backyard Band or Raw Image.
Or Brittani might be playing the music of rapper Nas, with his unsparing and graphic words ringing in her ears. Love, heartache, angst, friendship and happiness once reigned as key themes in musical inspiration. Today those passions butt against lyrical messages of explicit sexuality, misogyny and violence.
Concerned adults, including media watchdogs and members of the medical and mental-health communities, agree about music's ageless bearing on the minds and hearts of people, especially youth. Music is a "marker on the teenage genome," a lightning rod for each new generation, says longtime family therapist Carleton Kendrick. Many parents are resurrecting their inner teenager as they share with their children the re-emerging music of vintage bands such as Bob Marley and the Wailers and Led Zeppelin, to name just two.
The same observers differ, however, in their opinions about the effect of today's explicit lyrics on the psyches of child and adolescent listeners. They study whether there is a causal link between hearing and doing, and they wonder how, if at all, they should monitor the new music their children bring home.
Brittani says she and her mother, Paige Neal, a teacher who co-owns a Northern Virginia preschool, manage to connect with music. They share a penchant for the '70s R&B band Earth, Wind and Fire as well as contemporary artists Pink and Toni Braxton.
That connection often snaps at rap and hip-hop music, though.
"We'll turn on hip-hop stations in the car," Brittani says. "Sometimes when a song I like comes on with racy lyrics, she'll ask me what they're saying, and she'll get this look on her face. She doesn't really understand why I'd want to listen to something like that. I do because sometimes I can connect with what they're saying, I like the beat, and I'm a teenager. This is my generation of music."
Today's teenagers, just like those of generations past, listen to music "all the time," says Michael Wood, vice president of Teen Research Unlimited (TRU) in Northbrook, Ill. All say their stereo has top status within the four walls of their bedrooms.
"Music is an integral part of their lives - period," he says.
Technology and taste have taken a turn for teens in the 21st century, though.
For example, music is theirs for the taking: The advent of the Internet and MP3 technology allows teens to download their favorite songs to record, or "burn," onto CDs or hear on their computers or IPods.
"Teens don't necessarily think they should be buying music," Mr. Wood says. "They think it's something they should be sharing with friends."
In fact, TRU's most recent national study reveals that buying music in stores is No. 5 on the list of the ways teens obtain music. Their first option is to download music from the Internet for free, followed by burning their own CDs, getting CDs from friends that those friends have burned and burning copies of their friends' CDs.
Americans ages 12 to 19 rate "radio format" as their No. 1 musical choice, a type difficult to define because it's a combination of different genres "which have definitely gotten harder and edgier," Mr. Wood says. Hip-hop/rap is No. 2, followed by R&B, alternative and hard rock/heavy metal.
Today's headliners include Grammy-award-winning rapper Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem), who graphically describes raping his mother. Theatrical rocker Marilyn Manson sings about hastening his entry into the great beyond. The songs of these entertainers and a score of others are a giant leap from the now-innocuous "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Afternoon Delight" of years past.
"A lot of Americans are very concerned about the moral values of young people," says Jean Johnson, a senior vice president at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization based in New York City. "It's a very pervasive concern in a long list of concerns, including what's happening in pop culture, drugs in the neighborhoods, sexual promiscuity and what kids are learning from their peers."
Ms. Johnson is a co-author of "A Lot Easier Said Than Done: Parents Talk About Raising Children in Today's America," a newly released national survey of 1,607 parents of children ages 5 to 17. Of the total sample, 820 respondents were parents of teens.
Parents in the Public Agenda study said their teens listen to music with bad language sometimes (51 percent) or constantly (12 percent). In the study, 36 percent of parents said it never happens.
Their findings include the following: 27 percent of parents said they would "forbid it under any circumstances" if their children wanted to listen to music with bad or crude language, while 63 percent said they would be flexible. Ten percent said they don't make an issue of it, that there are more important things to worry about.
Mrs. Neal permits daughter Brittani to listen to music with explicit lyrics, but the teenager must do so via her headphones. It wasn't always that way.
"I used to just throw [the CDs] away," Mrs. Neal says. "I guess she thought that if she paid for them with her own money, I wouldn't make her throw them away, but she was so wrong."
Now that her daughter has "gotten older, a little wiser," Mrs. Neal says, "I don't mind if she listens to it, but I just don't want to hear it ,and I don't want her [9-year-old] sister to hear it. Being a preschool teacher, I know that children learn through listening to music. It's very powerful. So I know that her listening to it, she's definitely picking up on some things. She'll talk to me about those things."
Woodbridge, Va., mother Dawn Riggins says she has spoken to her son about the explicit lyrics he hears in some of his favorite tunes. The 15-year-old sophomore's musical tastes range widely and include hard rock by Linkin Park and rap by Eminem.
"I don't like the foul words and the negativity toward women in those songs," Ms. Riggins says. "A lot of these singers nowadays, all they talk about is being abusive, whether verbally or physically, toward women. I have talked to Bryan about it, saying this isn't a normal thing; it's something that should not happen."
She continues: "He's been brought up in a Christian home. I'm hoping that he knows right from wrong; even if he hears it, it's nothing he should be acting out. Maybe I'm a little bit naive."
Children learn about the world by observing it, imitating their observations and then adopting what works - whether it is using a spoon or determining how to conduct themselves in a relationship, says Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Boston and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. A spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Rich has testified numerous times before Congress, most recently in October, about the social impact of music violence.
"Unfortunately," he says, "there is no way that research can prove cause and effect between any influence and eventual health outcome, whether it be music and violence or tobacco and cancer, so parents and clinicians must make decisions based upon the preponderance of evidence."
The AAP five years ago started its Media Matters campaign to explore the impact of media messages on children's health behaviors and to advise pediatricians and parents about the issues. The organization lobbies for stronger music-industry standards, including a system of specific content labeling.
In addition, "Broadcasters and the music industry should be encouraged to demonstrate sensitivity and self-restraint in decisions regarding what is produced, marketed and broadcast," Dr. Rich says.
Artists can say and sing whatever they wish, a right guaranteed under the First Amendment, emphasizes James P. Steyer, owner of a family media company and author of "The Other Parent; The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children."
"But that doesn't mean Time-Warner Music or these other huge conglomerates have to sell it," says Mr. Steyer, who teaches civil rights law and public policy at Stanford University.
"I definitely feel that the media industry, of which the music industry is a significant component, owes a significant amount of responsibility to parents and kids," he says. "The equation in general is out of whack. There's very little responsibility at the top of the media. It's all about money, and parents are left to themselves."
The onus of social responsibility should not be thrust on the artist or the music company, counters Bryan Dyak, president and chief executive of the Entertainment Industries Council, a nonprofit organization that provides information about health and social issues to the entertainment industries and to audiences at large.
"The minute that any artist is given restraining parameters, you start to lose that art form," he says. "Then we have a serious condition in terms of our culture, and that is censorship. The music industry has a responsibility to protect the integrity of freedom. The art form only moves as far as the culture permits it."
Sitting in an unyielding spot within music culture, at a point somewhere between teenage rebellion and art appreciation, is the rock concert. Parents of teens might remember the heady feeling of attending their own: the sweat-tinged anticipation, the pushing and shoving, the unrelenting security detail, the notion of being at one with others of like mind.
Things haven't changed much, actually.
A punk band called Allister has taken the stage at the 9:30 Club in Northwest one weekday afternoon in November. Surly bouncers patrol the venue like pit bulls, apparently ready to take down anyone in the mostly teenage audience who poses a threat, real or imagined, to the performers. The music is so loud the floor shakes.
The lead singer tries to rev up the audience by bellowing obscenities into the microphone. It works. The audience screams the same obscenities back at him in response.
Fifteen-year-old Maureen Nicholl and her buddy Genevieve Jacobs, both 15, are in the crowd. Genevieve's father, veterinarian Tom Jacobs, has chauffered them to the concert from their Sykesville, Md., neighborhood, about an hour's drive from the District.
"These are all wholesome kids, every one of them," says Dr. Jacobs, 60, after the concert. "They're smart. They just have a different kind of music with which to interact with each other."
Maureen says her parents are OK with her choice of music, which centers on punk rock.
"They trust me to make good decisions and be responsible," she says. "Some of the offensive lyrics used today can ruin an otherwise good song; that's why I try to focus on the melody rather than what is being said. I look up to the artists that I listen to, but I respect them for their talent in music, not their way of life."
'Rock is in our blood'
Today's teens are closer to their parents than their parents were to their parents, says Mr. Wood of Teen Research Unlimited.
"They have more in common. They both grew up listening to rock, wearing bluejeans and questioning authority," he says. "Their musical tastes are not that far off from their parents and, in fact, many times kids will say that their parents introduced them to their own music, and the kids appreciate that."
A made-to-order example is the rock band Aerosmith. The band is entering its fourth decade, and its fans span the age spectrum.
The audience at a late December show at the MCI Center downtown is sprinkled liberally with groups of parents and their children. The Lachman family of Potomac, including 12-year-old Julia and 10-year-old Mike, are here to see the show, says father Gary Lachman, 50, because "rock is in our blood."
Mother Sharon, 48, says the family enjoys listening to Eminem, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park as well.
Mr. Lachman says he brings his children to concerts "to try to give them an appreciation of the roots of rock. It's symptomatic of the fact that we're close. If we weren't, our tastes in music would be more divergent. We can appreciate it, all sitting and listening to the same music, and for those precious moments, we're all on the same wavelength."
Carol and Tim Goode of Warrenton, Va., both in their early 40s, are there for the show with daughter Katie, 12, and son Randy, 15.
"I drive car pool every morning, so I have to listen to the popular stations, and this music is played on those stations," Ms. Goode says. "It's nice to have something in common."
Sixteen-year-old Jennifer Mens hugs the edge of the long catwalk where moments later 54-year-old lead singer Steven Tyler will bounce past, swinging his mike stand above her head, clearing it by inches.
This has been Jennifer's favorite band since the sixth grade. It's the third Aerosmith concert she has attended with her mother, Karen Mens, she says, pointing back into the audience to a middle-aged woman chatting politely with newly made friends.
"Yes, Aerosmith is something we have in common," Ms. Mens says, nodding back over at Jennifer. "It's a nice mother-daughter thing."
Headphones to the rescue?
It's another story when music can't be shared between children and parents because parents are offended by explicit lyrics.
Before parents forbid a specific artist or genre of music, they should listen to it to learn why their children enjoy it, says Adelaide Robb, a child psychiatrist at Children's National Medical Center.
"Sometimes forbidding things just makes kids want more," she says. "Choosing battles is a big thing. Ask yourself, 'What are my priorities?' It may be that the kid goes to school every day and does the homework and is respectful to adults. If you fight about everything, your kid is going to pick increasingly bad options to fight over."
Dr. Robb says certain music is damaging to children "depending on the specific child. If you have a child that is depressed and suicidal and feeling bad and they listen to Kurt Cobain talking about killing himself, maybe that's not the best music to be listening to. But if you have a happy-go-lucky, well-adjusted kid, I don't think it's something you need to fight over as a parent."
So if a parent doesn't want to hear specific music the child is playing, Dr. Robb suggests purchasing of a pair of headphones.
"Tell them, 'I'm the mom, and when we're driving in the car, we'll listen to my music station. We'll not play Eminem while I'm driving.' You're not forbidding them from having it but forbidding yourself from being subjected to it."
Family therapist Carleton Kendrick says fighting over music is a battle parents can't win in terms of preventing their children from listening to specific music.
However, he says, "They sure as heck can establish standards within the family of what is brought into the house."
Mr. Kendrick, who lives and practices in a suburb of Boston, is co-author of the forthcoming book "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's."
"If you hear language coming out of a boombox - this very sexually violent and degrading lyrics - you enter that room, and the discussion begins," he says. "'What do you think this music is all about? Could you play that back to me? I want to listen to it.'"
Mr. Kendrick continues: "Generally you'll get, 'It's just a song, Ma.' That's probably the way it'll run. And that's when the parent says: 'You know, Freddy, those thoughts, whether they're in music or a video game or a movie you might rent, that's not what we stand for as a family. Because when this guy says that to me, he's degrading me, your sisters, your grandmother, so you don't play that in this house. Those are the reasons."
He also suggests denying children the right to spend their birthday money and allowance money on such explicit music "because in this family we don't support people who degrade other people."
"Your children's music is a window into their souls. Pay attention to what music moves them; ask them why. Listen and learn; don't criticize or make fun of their taste unless you are offended by the violence or vulgarity of it. We all take our favorite music very personally. It's an extension of who we are, what we feel strongly and what we hope for. Play your favorite music for them and ask them what they think of it, explaining why you cherish it. Share your music, and you guarantee sharing yourselves with one another."
* ''The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children," by James P. Steyer, Atria Books, 2002. This book raises an alarm against the negative impact of modern media on children, the family and society.
* ''Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth," by Marjorie Heins, Hill and Wang, 2002. Censorship often is based on the assumption that children must be protected from "indecent" information; this author suggests that argument rests on a shaky foundation.
* Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org) is a nonprofit organization that focuses on bridging the cultural and generational gap between parents and teenagers. The Culture Fast Facts section of the site updates parents on what's relevant to their children in terms of media and culture, technology, film, TV, music and youth culture.
* Center for Media Literacy (www. medialit.org) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to bringing media literacy to every child. The site includes multitudes of materials and articles dedicated to the subject.
* Entertainment Industries Council, 1760 Reston Parkway, Suite 415, Reston, VA 20190. Phone: 703/481-1414. Web site: www.eiconline.org. The EIC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing awareness and understanding of major health and social issues among the entertainment industries and to audiences at large.
* American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Blvd., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007. Phone: 847/434-4000. Web site: www.aap.org/advocacy. Information from the AAP's Media Matters campaign includes testimony on children, adolescents and media and links to other media education sites.