Death as Portrayed to Adolescents through Top 40 Rock and Roll Music

By Plopper, Bruce L.; Ness, M. Ernest | Adolescence, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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Death as Portrayed to Adolescents through Top 40 Rock and Roll Music

Plopper, Bruce L., Ness, M. Ernest, Adolescence


The influence of popular media in American culture has been widely studied (e.g., Wartella & Reeves, 1985). In particular, rock and roll music is one of the many elements of popular media to be analyzed as an integral part of society (e.g., Curtis, 1987), and it also has been acknowledged as an important channel for the communication and expression of adolescent values, conflicts, attitudes, and emotions (Leger, 1980; Santiago, 1969; Davis, 1985; Wells & Hakanen, 1991). More specifically, Fulton and Owen (1987-88) suggested that media proliferation has altered the ways death is portrayed in society, and that it is within this context that adolescents express their fears and frustrations about it.

Thrush and Paulus (1979) published the first structured analysis of death concerns in popular music and concluded that "... the vast majority of the songs address themselves to death and dying in a manner acceptable to 'median taste'". Teenage "coffin songs" (those ending with the death of one or both teenage lovers) also have been analyzed from the conceptual framework of death as a form of adolescent rebellion (Denisoff, 1983). Attig (1986) provided the most recent and thorough review of death themes in rock and roll lyrics, and he suggested the necessity to "... record the evolution of adolescent music, with particular emphasis on the presence of death and death-related themes, as it moves from its classic period into and through the 1980s".

A comprehensive analysis of death themes in rock music requires a methodology more precise than those employed in previous studies. First, a broad segment of the rock era should be reviewed. Second, there must be a clear and consistent definition of "death song." Third, some of the central features of death songs need to be uniformly coded.

The current investigation, using a rigorous methodology, addressed four questions: (1) How prominent has death been in rock and roll music? (2) How has death been depicted in selected demographic terms, e.g., who dies, how do they die, and what relationships are depicted? (3) What death-related attitudes and behaviors are portrayed in the lyrics of rock and roll death songs? (4) Have there been any trends in the prominence and content of death songs?


Two steps were taken to operationally define popular rock and roll death songs. One step was to designate Top 40 "singles" as the record domain because they receive a greater amount of airplay than do album tracks. Another reason for using this set of songs was that the Recording Industry Association of America has indicated that adolescents and young adults make up the largest segment of the Top 40 record-buying public (1989). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits (Whitburn, 1991) was selected as the definitive source for the chart history of the 9,311 singles that reached the pop music charts from January 1, 1955 to July 31, 1991.

The second step was to identify "death songs," using the following three-part definition: (1) one or more persons in the song clearly had to have died or the death(s) had to be imminent (going to occur within a few days); (2) the deceased (or soon to be deceased) had to (a) be identified either by name or as a member of a small, identifiable group, (b) be the singer, (c) be in a clearly defined relationship with the singer, or (d) be essential to the meaning of the song, i.e., without mention of the deceased, the song's story line would significantly change; and (3) the deceased could not be a ghost or an apparition.

This strict definition excluded songs that (a) focused on reflections about death or other existential concerns, (b) described fantasies or dreams about people who were not actually dead, or (c) predicted global holocaust. Instrumental versions of various songs also were excluded.

Three broad classifications for death songs also were identified: (a) songs about everyday, common people who either were fictitious or unknown to the general public; (b) songs about celebrities or public figures; and (c) novelty songs, which were defined as those which tended to be humorous or treated death lightly.

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Death as Portrayed to Adolescents through Top 40 Rock and Roll Music


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