A Stairway To Drugs? -- Rock Lyrics: Parents Worry But The Young Aren't Listening

THE first three lines of Led Zeppelin's 1971 rock classic "Stairway to Heaven" speak of a lady who's sure "all that glitters is gold" and who is "buying a stairway to heaven."

This, according to social scientists, is a clear reference to drug use. Acapulco gold. Buying a means to get high in the sky. Not to mention the next lines: "When she gets there she knows, If the stores are all closed, With a word she can get what she came for."

Get it?

Fortunately for the morals of an entire generation of slow-dancers, few did.

In fact, when a team of California psychologists recently surveyed a group of several hundred teen-agers, none of the students who listed "Stairway to Heaven" among their favorite tunes made the association between the lyrics and drug use.

"It's about going to heaven through a stairway and the stairway has problems along the way," was one typical response.

In the past few years, widespread concern that rock lyrics corrupt young minds has led to the formation of numerous angry-parent groups, the adoption of warning stickers on albums and a nationwide controversy over the rap group 2 Live Crew. But as social scientists have attempted to verify these worries, they have come up empty.

In this research, teen-agers have been given printouts of the lyrics to popular songs and asked for their interpretations. They have filled out multiple-choice questionnaires about songs they've heard 100 times on the radio.

In virtually every case the answer has been the same: Few young people listen closely to a song's lyrics, even when the words are distinct and explicit. Fewer remember the lyrics. And fewer still understand them.

This doesn't mean psychologists have abandoned their concerns about the influence of pop culture on children. But some researchers have begun to argue that the effect of rock music on teen-agers - if it exists at all - is far more complicated and subtle than Johnnie hearing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" one too many times and deciding to take LSD.

The central empirical discovery in lyrics research is that young people don't care that much about the lyrics to songs.

Surveys of teen-agers consistently show that when asked to list their reasons for liking a song, they put things such as "it helps me to relax" and "it's good to dance to" at the top of the list and "I want to listen to the words" at the bottom.

Because they don't usually listen to lyrics, teen-agers tend to form opinions of songs based on other, sometimes inaccurate, information. For example, the 1984 Bruce Springsteen hit single "Born in the USA" contains in every verse explicit references to despair and disillusionment.

Yet in a study of schoolchildren by a group of psychologists at the University of California at Los Angeles, none of a sample of fourth graders - and only 30 percent of eighth graders, 40 percent of high-school seniors and half of college students - understood what the song was about, even after being given samples of the song's lyrics. Most assumed, because of the title, that the song was a patriotic anthem.

Does this mean parents shouldn't worry about rock lyrics? The answer is unclear. Some experts, for example, argue it is possible that teen-agers could still be affected by lyrics even if they don't explicitly remember or comprehend them.

"If you ask people what advertising they remember, most can recall only very few," said George Gerbner, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School. "People don't actively remember most of the things they encounter every day. But that doesn't necessarily mean they haven't absorbed it and internalized the attitudes and perspectives represented there."