Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me," one of the top songs on the R&B; charts last week, is so vulgar and hateful toward women that I am tempted to wonder whether Ms. Howard recorded the piece as a cry for help.
"It's all about the dog in me, the freak in me," cries Ms. Howard in the song. "I don't care what they say, I want to freak in the morning, freak in the evening. I need a rough-neck [man] that can satisfy me."
Those lyrics make me want to weep for our young people, weep for our future.
But the inspirational "Why We Sing" by Kirk Franklin and the Family also sits atop the charts. And that song sends a very different message about young people and, perhaps, about our future.
"Someone asked the question, why do we sing? When we lift our hands to Jesus, what do we really mean?" sings Mr. Franklin and a choir in the song that has dominated both the R&B; and gospel charts for several months. "Someone may be wondering, when we sing our song. At times we may be crying and nothing's even wrong. I sing because I'm happy! I sing because I'm free! His eye is on the sparrow! That's the reason why I sing!"
In East Baltimore Sunday, I asked 14-year-old Alisha Murdock to explain how songs so very different could both be so popular.
" 'Why We Sing' talks about God and faith and inspiration and stuff like that. That's why I like it," she says.
"What about 'Freak Like Me'?" I ask.
"It's OK," answers Alisha with a nervous laugh. "I just listen to it for the beat. I don't pay any attention to it."
I give her my skeptical, investigative reporter's look. "So, you're trying to say that the lyrics aren't important?"
"Not in that one," says Alisha. "Sometimes the lyrics are important and sometimes they aren't. It depends on the song."
"I guess [Adina Howard] shouldn't be saying that about herself," Alisha adds. "It's like she is saying that all women are sluts, which isn't true. It's like she is selling herself short."
It may be that the entire music industry is selling its audience short. Parents, teachers, ministers and many other people who care about kids have repeatedly objected to the values promoted by much of the material put out by the industry.
Even politicians have joined the chorus of criticism.
The industry defends itself the way Milo Minderbender defended his actions in the novel "Catch-22." Accused of taking a contract with the Germans to bomb his own squadron, Milo tried to silence his critics by pointing to his profits -- as though making money excuses all wrongdoing.
But maybe an emphasis on "positive" music could be highly profitable -- provided the music industry would give it a try.
"People are crying out for help, crying out to be changed," says David Brown, a broadcaster at WBGR Radio, one of three urban-oriented gospel music stations in Baltimore. "More than anything else, there is a need in people to be saved and they aren't finding this in the secular world. They aren't finding it in drugs. They are finding it in gospel music. They are finding it in the Word. It is about time the music industry gave gospel music its due."
Mr. Brown, an associate minister at Leadenhall Baptist Church in South Baltimore, notes that there have been several instances in the past when gospel performers achieved cross-over success. In the 1970s, the New York Community Choir hit it big with "Express Yourself," while the Edwin Hawkins Singers recorded the very successful "Oh Happy Day." Modern groups such as Sounds of Blackness stay on the charts by using a skillful blend of contemporary and gospel rhythms.
"Musicians are no different from anyone else," says Mr. Brown. "You have to make choices. You can take the high road or the low road. You can do right or you can do wrong."
Says young Alisha Murdock, " 'Why We Sing' makes me feel better about things. 'Freak Like Me' has a good beat and all, but basically I listen to it because it's there."
In this light, entertainers should be held responsible for what they choose to say and how they choose to say it. The fact that they can make money from garbage is no excuse.