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On the everything side, consider the stylistic shifts we've witnessed since Plugged In began reviewing music in 1990. The saccharine superficiality of '80s pop and hair metal gave way to the disillusioned growls of grunge. But grunge burned out as quickly as it arrived, paving the way for nu metal's fusion of rap and rock. Speaking of those genres, hip-hop displaced rock atop the pop charts in the '90s. We also saw the rise and fall of boy bands, an ex-Mouseketeer named Britney and a gaggle of angry "grrls." Then came digital downloads … and digital piracy. Even as illegal downloading decimated music sales, the amount of music someone might be exposed to (especially via sites such as YouTube and MySpace) multiplied exponentially.

For all those changes, however, much remains the same when it comes to pop music's focus … and its influence. The perennial themes of love and sex, pleasure and hedonism, as well as insecurity, broken hearts and alienation still dominate. More importantly, music is an increasingly significant influence in young people's media-saturated lives. The Kaiser Family Foundation's recent study Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-olds found that young people today are consuming more music than ever: 2 hours, 31 minutes daily as of 2009, compared to 1 hour, 48 minutes in 1999. And the messages they internalize shape their lives in two significant areas: identity and behavior.

Adolescence brims with yearning and confusion, hope and angst. Perhaps more than any other entertainment medium, music invites young listeners to identify with artists whose lyrics provide an outlet for all that stuff roiling about inside. As they listen to and identify with the messages and values proffered by their favorite artists, it invariably affects the decisions they make and how they see the world.

We've all heard this line before: "I don't pay attention to the lyrics. I just like the beat." Increasingly, however, researchers are documenting a link between what teens listen to and how they behave. In other words, lyrics matter. For example, a 2006 RAND Corporation study found that 12- to 17-year-olds who frequently listened to music with sexually degrading lyrics were almost twice as likely to engage in sexual activity within the ensuing two years as peers who rarely listened or completely refrained.

Young people—and perhaps some of us who are older—may be tempted to buy the lie that music doesn't influence our choices or how we see the world. But the evidence, be it scientific or anecdotal (including 20 years of letters to Plugged In ), suggests that music's influence is indeed profound. That's why we'll keep putting popular lyrics under the microscope to help you and your family think carefully and critically about what musicians are saying to our children.

You'll find this article and other 20th anniversary reflections—including quotes, letters, statistics, a timeline, trivia and more—in our special online flipbook. Click here to check it out!

Published October 2010