Music is an art form that addresses many social issues, even in popular music otherwise designed for entertainment. I am interested in this topic because drug use is one of those many different issues. Most forms of music will address drug use at some point, and it is important to consider not only how music addresses drugs but how the way in which it has done so has changed, if indeed it has changed at all. For this paper, I wanted to see if I could look at music that is about a number of different drugs, in order to maybe get a sense of whether there were contextual issues at work. The list of songs is found in the table below:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Because I Got High
These songs span different eras, different drugs and different styles of music. Two are hip hop songs, three are rock songs. The rock songs are older, the hip hop songs are newer. Primack et al. (2008) performed a study that explored the connection between drugs and music. In a study of 279 drug-related songs, the authors found that drugs were referenced in 14% of rock songs and 77% of rap songs. Rock had one of the lowest amounts of drug references -- lower than country or R&B while rap had one of the highest. The authors found that because of this, adolescents are "exposed to approximately 84 references to explicit substance use daily in popular songs" -- and indeed four of the five I chose were major hits (no pun intended).
Despite deliberately choosing a diverse group of songs, there were nevertheless some similarities. All songs except Snowblind were slow in tempo, for example, which might well mirror the effects of the drug -- in which case we would expect Snowblind to be the fastest. In terms of message, the songs tended to either reflect that the artist was the audience -- it was written almost as a cathartic exercise -- or that the song was intended for an audience of someone who might be curious about that drug. Arguably Comfortably Numb is the main exception to this. Of the four others, none are overtly a cautionary tale in a preachy away. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is celebratory, Because I Got High is comical/cautionary, while Snowblind and Waterworld are overtly dark tales reflecting addiction.
There is a role that context plays in the way the drug use is treated is also something worth considering. The Beatles were writing in an era when the psychedelic effects of LSD were being celebrated, and therefore were comfortable taking that tone in their song. Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd were major acts and while their songs were overtly about drug use, they also avoided taking too dark a tone, something that might be expected from mainstream acts. Waterworld, from an underground act and about a drug that has little to no glamor, is easily the harshest and darkest of the songs on this list. Rap is also a musical form that tends to be more blunt in how it treats the darker side of life. The song first talks about PCP use but moves into verses about the vocalists' impending deaths from their addiction. The other songs shy away from this side, despite two of them featuring drugs that often kill their users.
It may be that the franker treatment of dark issues in rap music is precisely why drug use is talked about more in that form of music. Even Afroman, while being comedic, is frank about some of the negative side effects on quality of life that come from overuse of marijuana. Some studies have shown that different types of music correlate to the use of different drugs (Forsyth, Barnard & McKegany, 1997). There are many reasons for this, and different drugs and types of music may simply attract similar types of people. There is also the question as to whether a specific form of music drives the drug use, or whether its artists simply reflect back the culture in which they exist -- the Beatles and Black Sabbath were certainly doing that.