On the desk in his fourth-floor office at the College of Media & Communication building, assistant professor of public relationsEric Rasmussen has a picture of his four daughters. That doesn't really set him apart from other fathers with pictures of their children adorning their office.
Except that, for Rasmussen, the picture is not just a reminder of his family, it's a source of motivation for his research, which focuses on children and the media, how media influences children at different stages of life and how parents communicate with their children about the messages media portrays.
He just completed one aspect of that research, examining how the lyrics of modern country music songs objectify women and the influence the music has on women of all ages.
"What we found was that country lyrics in the 2010s talk about women's appearance more, talk about women in tight and revealing clothing more, refer to women using slang more and rarely use their names," Rasmussen said. "Country music has generally been seen as the most wholesome music genre, but what this research is saying is that may not be the case anymore."
Then vs. now
Rasmussen and co-author Rebecca Densley, a doctoral student in the College of Media & Communication studied lyrics in country music from the first half of three different decades – the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s. In each half-decade, he studied the top 50 Billboard songs of each year and analyzed their portrayal of women.
In the first two half-decades, he found country music lyrics referred to people specifically, or the songs represented women in respective ways. Those were the decades dominated by singers like George Strait, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks.
But something changed in country music around the late 2000s and into the 2010s when the portrayal of women in country music changed completely – the influence of pop music. "Bro country" was born.
Suddenly, it became commonplace to talk about women in tight shorts or bikinis, referring to them in unflattering ways with nicknames such as "baby" or "honey" and looking at them as nothing more than a trophy or something that looks good in the front seat of a pickup truck.
In essence, country music has followed other genres of music, such as hip-hop or 1980s hair metal, which have experienced massive amounts of popularity.
"You hear about crossover country where it has incorporated lyrics and beats and other characteristics of pop," Rasmussen said. "Country music is not that old, but it's not steel guitars anymore. It doesn't have that twang anymore. It's more pop, more mainstream and the ratings are driving it.
"I don't know if that says more about the industry or the listeners, because we're the ones buying it. But I think it's important to be aware of this, especially for parents, because there rarely is a safe place where you can escape the message that women are objects."
Rasmussen also looked at songs sung by male singers and songs sung by female singers and found the songs that objectify women are those sung exclusively by male singers.
"Women need to be seen for their accomplishments and who they are as people," Rasmussen said. "I tell my daughters all the time it doesn't matter what you look like, it matters who you are as a person, and the more we can get that message to people, the better."
Rasmussen said the message needs to change because, eventually, young girls may grow up thinking it's OK to be viewed as a sexual object if that's what they're hearing in the media, and country music is a big part of that.
Viewing the clothing habits of the average crowd at a college football tailgate might give the impression that many young girls are OK with the message being portrayed. But Rasmussen said that impression is wrong.
"I think the reason we did the study in the first place is because research shows this type of music can have an effect on people," Rasmussen said. "If this is the message they hear, they'll think it's acceptable and normal, and people normally try to go with the flow and match their attitude to what they think is acceptable in society. But we want to educate people about what's happening, that the media does have an effect and that it's not OK to demean women in this way."
Other research shows those messages in which women are viewed as objects are bad for women's health, both physically and mentally, and that there are very few messages in the media about women where their value is based on characteristics other than what they look like.
"All I know is I want people to start thinking about this," Rasmussen said, "I want my daughters and other young women to have a sense their value is not based on what men think of them or what society thinks of them. It's independent of all that."
Unfortunately, Rasmussen said, change comes slowly, and there doesn't appear to be any slowdown in the tone coming from country music, despite discussion that "bro country" has run its course. But he wants the conversation about changing that tone to start soon, which is why he's created his own blog.
ChildrenAndMediaMan was created to provide parents access to the latest research on any and every subject related to children and the media. It takes academic research that sits on digital servers accessed usually only by other researchers and puts it in the hands of parents, who can then use that information in raising their children while dealing with the multitude of messages they receive from all forms of media.
This is where he hopes to start the conversation that changes how country music portrays women.
"I think it will take a concerted effort by many researchers to start using what we know about communication to get the research out to those who need it," Rasmussen said. "I'm only a drop in the bucket with my little blog, but my goal is to have parents everywhere understand how kids are affected by the media. Not just parents, though. People need to understand that media does play a role in their lives whether they know it or not."