Mixed Messages

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the dual personality of mainstream music. It seems that so many artists say and do things (in conversations or interviews and with their music) that totally contradict each other. This is nothing new, but I’ve been struck by some recent examples, like Katy Perry’s songs “Firework” and “Last Friday Night.”


There’s a great re:tuned discussion starter for Katy Perry’s song “Firework” in our latest YLO Resource Book (click here to get the PDF). The song speaks to the struggle for self worth that we all face at one time or another (and is so concentrated during the teen years). I will restate the caveat that re:tuned author Eric Gargus wrote: there are portions of the music video that don’t reflect Godly values. But the lyrics taken as a whole offer positive encouragement to all of us.

So it gives me a bit of whiplash to go from “Firework” to Katy’s latest release “Last Friday Night (TGIF).” While I appreciate the homage to all things ’80s, the message of the song is wrong on so many levels that I don’t even know where to start.


The video features the Friday night escapades of a fictional eight grader (yep, no room for the “this is really aimed at adults” argument on this one), and from the opening lyrics, it spirals quickly into a tale of debauchery:

There’s a stranger in my bed
There’s a pounding in my head …

I smell like a minibar
DJ’s passed out in the yard
Barbies on the barbecue
Is this a hickey or a bruise?

I really don’t need to elaborate … the video and song speak for itself. So how do we balance Katy’s encouragement and positive message in “Firework” with her party-party-party message of “Last Friday Night”? More importantly, how do our students make sense of the two divergent messages?

I’m reminded of a post I read a while back by Jonathan McKee over at The Source For Youth Ministry. He was talking about how Lady Gaga is more than a pop culture sensation, but that she has become a role model for students.

Many of our Christian kids are confused. One moment they see her stripping down to a g-string and dancing seductively in her music videos, and the next minute, she’s thanking God and raising money for homeless, or more recently, the people of Japan.

He’s right. Students are confused; heck, some days I’m confused. Mainstream artists spend millions to promote an all-about-me lifestyle of self-indulgent, self-gratifying behavior in their songs and videos. At the same time, they offer their insight on personal and spiritual matters, are making a genuine difference in the world as social activists and are touted as role models.

What other examples of these “mixed messages” can you think of? What are you doing to help students understand the divergent messages in mainstream music? What ideas do you have to share with other youth leaders about how to shine a light on the clash between words and actions, and what the Bible has to say about the conflict between the two?

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15 Responses to Mixed Messages

  1. Brian says:

    I tell my students not to by into it or listen to it. Katy and Gaga do there stuff for money. It’s like Eminem not allowing cursing At his house (see 60 minute interview). To say that is unrealistic is to say that God has standards to high. We are suppose flee from evil just like David did when approached by a tempting woman. It’s amazing how the students that stay away from it see it for what it is. Sin. Putting that stuff in your ears and in your can’t be good for your soul.

  2. Paul Tuner says:

    I think we, as humans, are more like Perry and Gaga than we like to admit. We as humans, have a flip side. We have great songs and then some that are not so great. The Bible teaches us to die to those things, flee those those things like Brian said earlier. Our students are more like Gaga and Perry than Jesus. They are still writing their songs and trying them to different audiences. Much like Perry and Gaga. So, we who are flawed, leading the flawed, must teach kids to see our flaws and sins in the light of scripture and under the umbrella of God’s grace.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Paul. As always, you call it like it is 🙂 It’s hard to admit that we might have something in common with Lady Gaga or “the strayed” Katy Perry. But truth is we all battle our human nature every day. There’s something for us all to learn from these discussions – not just something to “teach” our students.

  3. Justin D. Fender says:

    I am constantly telling my students that the Christian life is a life of consistency. The polarization seen in musical artists, political figures, and Hollywood types just shows a life that is searching high and low for the anchor that we as Christians know to be Jesus Christ. In the end, someone in need is going to run to the person who has been consistent in their beliefs and lifestyle to someone who is always trying to keep up with the latest fads and bouncing all around. When it comes to mixed messages like Katy Perry, like Brian said, flee evil… you can be entertained, but not influenced.

  4. mike says:

    The problem is that if you just tell your students to not listen to it or to not “buy in” to it, you end up missing out on the teaching moments and the conversations. Let’s be real, these songs are going nowhere. Sticking our heads in the sand, or teaching our students to do likewise isn’t helpful to anyone. We have a responsibility to open up healthy conversations about the songs and the messages they are sending.

    Here’s a teaching idea. Have “iPod Night”. Everyone brings their MP3 player. Toss them all in a bucket. Pull one out, hit shuffle and play the songs. Throw the lyrics up on a screen via Google and talk through the song with your students.

    -what does each line mean?
    -what does this mean to you?
    -what matches Scripture? What doesn’t?
    -what makes this song popular?

    Too risky? Grab the Billboard Top 100 and print of the lyrics to a few songs and do the same thing. Teach your students to think a little bit more about what they are consuming.

  5. Brian Lucas says:

    The problem with the comment above is that the students will listen to it. It’s not our job as Youth leaders to play the “Holier than Thou” card on our kids and tell them that those are God’s standards. We need to teach them to evaluate it, not just ignore it.
    We are about to rerun a series we did last year on Purity, having to do with Sex, Drugs/Alcohol, and Media. We’re talking about purity and how easily it gets tainted. Then we talk about learning to develop standards for ourselves and evaluate what is around us.
    If we only were to tell our students, “Don’t have sex until marriage, don’t drink or do drugs, and don’t listen to anything but Toby Mac and Chris Tomlin,” we’d set them up for guaranteed failure in life. We must help them learn to think critically about their faith, their understanding of the Bible, pop culture, current events, and everything else in their world. Then, as they learn the TRUTH of the Bible and develop a Christian worldview, it will stick with them.
    Thank you for these peeks into current pop culture. I don’t listen to this type of music (pop/vocalist/dance), but a lot of my students do, so this is helpful to have these topics brought to my attention.
    Thanks for all you guys do!

  6. Chris Fleece says:

    When we talk about what we listen to, we talk about reaping and sowing. If we sow a “party, party, party” song, then we’ll reap the consequences and our lives will reflect all the problems that come with such a lifestyle. Headaches, addictions, bad attitudes, hurt, pregnancy, and sometimes police involvement. When we think we can control it or allow our pride to get in the way, that’s when the fall begins to happen. The Bible is clear about who we should hang around and avoid. That includes the influence of music because it’s like having someone constantly whispering in your ear and if you know the song well, it will whisper in your ear even when it’s not playing. So the question is, what do you want that whisper to say? Encouragement to walk with or without God?

  7. Yo, Brian my brother, it was Joseph who fled temptation and David who abused his power, raped Bathsheba and killed her husband Uriah… and was still loved by God. Talk about flaws, David definitely fits the bill. David too was a singer whose songs and lifestyle didn’t always match up. If you read the rest of David’s family story you can see some of the outcomes of what happened as a consequence of his lifestyle, despite his public songs. His children show how well they learned or did not learn to hear God’s call to a holy life in their father’s songs over the din of favoritism, opportunism, violence and exploitation at the royal court at Jerusalem.
    The same is true for our kids and Katy Perry et. al.. The idea that you can somehow seperate and abstract good virtues from self and community destroying behavior is not new. We become what we do. The idea that we don’t sustain spiritual damage when we engage our bodies in splitting, unconscious, self obliterating activities such as alcohol, drug abuse and random hooking up is just plain old self decption, just like David did. Sexual incontinence, like bodily incontinence, leaves a stain. It is only when we match up what we do and what we say that truth is conveyed with authority. Anyone can express good sentiments. Americans are champions at it. Doing? That’s a different kettle of fish. Truth is in the fruits of their actions. I never saw starving people fed by a room full of ecstacy ravers or couples running off after a hook-up to tend to the sick and infirm.
    Ask your students to do a long term study on popular music artists starting with Frank Sinatra, look at their public sentiments and their personal lives, and be sure to check out the lives of their children. Bring kleenex with you.

    Nothing like facts seen in the clear light of day. For those who think you can “have a little fun” long term with no consequences I invite you to view the history of rehabs, beatings, child abuse, broken promises, gun violence, divorce, deception, court proceedings, abandonment and violent death that litters the pop/rock/rap/hip-hop scene like unacknowledged garbage in the living room.
    I don’t know if the message is that mixed, it’s pretty clear for those with the eyes and ears to see it. And where does the Katy Perry walk go? In an interview Pete Townsend of The Who said (sic)”I’m lonely. My friends are all dead from drugs and my children won’t talk to me.” The Who had lots to say in their day but it looks to me like the final talk matched up pretty well with the real walk.

  8. Admittedly we are still, sadly, a lot like Katy and Gaga. But God has called up to a higher standard: His standard. Are we ever going to achieve it- NO (at least not here on earth) but He has called us to it none the less.
    He has called us to be in the world and not of it. Duh, we quote that all the time but what does it mean for us today? Jesus knew OF the evil in his community/society enough to make teachable and effective examples but was not participating in, condoning, or supporting it (with ‘tolerance’ or money).
    It’s not being naive to “flee temptation” is biblical. We should look nothing like the world. In some manner we should be odd for God. I’m not talking about our Failed attempts at our hokey spin off Ts or songs either.
    I do not think it is okay to allow our students to saturate themselves in our culture under the guise of teachable moments.
    When surrendering our lives to Christ we do just that. SURRENDER everything; not just ‘ask Him into our hearts’.

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  10. Clayton says:

    I think it is important to remember that though we are not called to be of the world, we are still in the world. We cannot simply censor and shelter our students from everything. Our job is to strengthen them in faith and moral character. While in the world, they will do the same. All things work for good for those who trust in the Lord, even Katy Perry music. Remember “I Like Big Bibles” that came out as a spoof of “I Like Big Butts?” This is a classic example of how a great tune can really reach students.

    “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment…” (Romans 5:3-5)

    Mike, thanks for the iPod night idea. It might be a little risky but I think I will give it a shot. Our students will be excited that I am not banning them from their iPods for one evening of youth fellowship.

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