If you were asked the question “what genre of music has the most references to drugs and illicit substances in its lyrics,” what would you have answered? If you were a group of researchers from the University of California Berkeley, you’d probably say rap music. In fact, if you asked most people this question, they’d probably agree with that study. Popular assumptions have long argued that rap and hip-hop are the genres of music most associated with drug-laden lyrical content, perhaps citing examples such as Kanye West — one of the biggest (and most controversial) names in the music industry — rapping about DMT and 2CB in his song “Yikes” or Pulitzer-Prize-winning artist Kendrick Lamar rapping about different strains of weed in his song “A.D.H.D.” Yet is it that straightforward? Just because we hear rappers and hip-hop artists sing and rap about drugs more frequently and explicitly than other artists, does their music actually top the lyrical drug count?
Kendrick Lamar – A.D.H.D. (VEVO Presents) | Source: © KendrickLamarVEVO/YouTube
A study published in 2017 by Addictions.com revealed that — to most people’s surprise — country music actually tops the list as the genre that has the most drug references in its lyrics. This study did not count alcohol as a drug, negating the argument that country music only sings about booze, which makes the results even more surprising. Additionally, out of the many genres included in the study, rap actually has the least drug references, coming last in a list that included, among others, jazz, pop, electronica, folk, and rock. Admittedly, Addictions.com is not a renowned institution nor a research journal, but the media coverage the study has received does bring up an interesting — and significant — conversation point: in what ways do drug references reveal the implicit biases we have as a society?
The fact we’re talking about this right now — and why there’s been so much interest and research on the issue — is due in part to the U.S. government’s notorious War on Drugs. Since its origins in the Nixon era of the 1970’s, this federal campaign to “reduce the illegal drug trade in America” has, in fact, done more harm than good. Today, most people from both sides of the political aisle would argue that the War on Drugs has failed horribly, leading to incredibly high levels of incarceration and thousands of lives ruined rather than the stemming of the so-called drug tide. The War on Drugs was (and still is) an innately racist campaign, an attitude reflected in both its focus and scope. Inherent within its argument is an implicit racial bias against people of color, in particular African American and Latino communities.
Jay Z – The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush | Source: © Drug Policy Alliance/YouTube
As Vox explained in 2016, while African Americans aren’t the ones selling or buying the most drugs, they are definitely the ones “much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses.” Given how long and pervasive this campaign has been (and continues to be), it is unsurprising that one consequence of the War on Drugs and its implicit racism is an equally strong and pervasive implicit racism against music created and celebrated by people of color: specifically, rap and hip-hop. The argument goes that, because these artists talk about drugs so much in their music, they must be encouraging and promoting its use amongst listeners young and old. Yet, the history of referencing drugs goes way back before the War on Drugs, and it features a plethora of different musical genres and communities.
Consider this selection of some of the most memorable songs from the last 80 years that contain one or more references to the following drugs: cocaine, marijuana, MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly), heroin, and LSD/acid:
Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Gone Out of Hand
Unless you’re a music critic or someone working in the music industry, you likely experience and consume music — especially new music — in your own personal vacuum. As such, there is often a blissful ignorance of the impact seismic socio-political shifts can have on the popular music being produced. For example, even though marijuana has featured in popular music as far back as the 1930’s — creating its own sub-genre within jazz — and continues to feature heavily in music lyrics to this day, there was a brief period in the 1950’s when there were significantly fewer songs referencing marijuana.
Cab Calloway – The Reefer Man (Original) | Source: cjlujan1995/YouTube
This can be attributed in part to the passing of the Boggs Act, which created mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. The sentence for marijuana possession was incredibly harsh, with first-time offenders sentenced to a minimum of 2 to 10 years in prison. Because of this, many musicians who used to openly sing about marijuana stopped doing so. It took some time for marijuana to feature back in music lyrics but by the time it did, there was a new drug in town, and many musicians were tripping over themselves singing about it.
In the 1960’s, the drug of choice was LSD, also known as acid, and a new sub-genre of rock was born out of the LSD experience: psychedelic rock. Perhaps the most iconic song of this sub-genre — and symbolized popular culture’s relationship with the drug — was “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. While most people nowadays might think the song is about a particular marijuana strain (which got its name from Hendrix’s song), the song is actually about LSD — not that anybody, including Hendrix, at the time would admit to it. For despite LSD’s huge popularity during this period in American history (certainly in American music history), there were increasing calls for the government to intervene in the so-called prevalence of hard drugs in society. In 1966, California and New York declared LSD illegal and, shortly thereafter, the rest of the country followed suit.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze (Music Video) | Source: TheGreatRocknRollPRT/YouTube
In the book Heads: A Biography on Psychedelic America, author Jesse Jarnow discusses how the start of Nixon’s War on Drugs influenced the conversation around LSD and its use in popular culture. As the U.S. federal government begin its crackdown on various pro-LSD counterculture groups such as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love for their unabashed love of acid, the use of acid goes underground — and so did the music. As a result, during the 1970’s there were fewer popular songs that referenced LSD, perhaps in fear of prosecution. It would not be until the next decade that popular music would be comfortable referencing LSD again.
I’ve Seen The Needle and the Damage Done
Looking at the trajectory of drug references across music lyrics also revealed something that all musicians and songwriters know: drugs are more than just about the drugs themselves. It is about the experience; it is about the performance; it’s about the story. Their illicit nature gives the experience a mysterious temptation, while the potential for unpredictable (and often uncontrollable) physical and psychological effects makes these stories set to song exciting and dangerous. Musicians and artists use drugs (literally and figuratively) as a way to perform certain kinds of scenarios and emotions, signalling to the listeners a certain kind of feeling they should get from the song. As such, the diversity of songs a musician of any background could create is reflected in the stories a drug of any background could tell. For as much as authority figures would like to tell you that all drug-ridden lyrics are promoting irresponsible and wild use of these substances, the reality is not so black-and-white.
Take a drug like heroin — one of the most dangerous drugs out there and one that has claimed the lives of numerous musicians, including Janis Joplin, Dee Dee Ramone, and, just earlier this year, Tom Petty. Heroin has featured in music across all genres fairly consistently since the 1960’s, and for every song that notes its virtues, there’s another that laments its vices.
When I put a spike into my vein
And I tell you things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
The Velvet Underground – Heroin (song only) | Source: Smallprint/YouTube
When Lou Reed sang these words in The Velvet Underground’s 1967 hit “Heroin,” there were many critics who denounced the song as a celebration of the drug’s effects — a point Reed has always taken issue with. For Reed and the rest of the band, the song is about the complicated nature of its controversial subject matter; it can be a source of escape as much as it is a death sentence. Most songs about heroin over the last few decades acknowledge this double-sided nature of heroin.
I need some distraction
Oh beautiful release
Memory seeps from my veins
Let me be empty
Oh, and weightless and maybe
I’ll find some peace tonight
Sarah McLachlan – Angel (Official Music Video) | Source: © NettwerkMusic/YouTube
Sarah McLachlan’s 1998 single “Angel” never explicitly mentioned the inspiration for the song — the heroin overdose of the Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboard player, Jonathan Melvoin. Instead, she lets the words and the music do their job, performing the story of the emotional & physical temptations musicians face whenever they’re in the presence of hard drugs. Rather than explicitly condemn or celebrate the drug, McLachlan allows the listener to come to their own conclusions about the substance, arguably leaving a deeper and more profound impression on them.
This is the Asphalt World
The history of drug references in popular music is a history littered with implicit biases towards various kinds of communities that have the potential to undermine the status quo in power. In the 1930’s, it was free-flowing reefer jazz and its musicians of color that terrified the conservative white majority. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and its psychedelic music that threatened the stability of the nuclear (white) family. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it was the ganja culture within rap and hip-hop that threatened the safety of our youth. And now, it is the party-hopping pills of E and molly circulated in clubs and raves that threaten the morality of our 120-or-more-BPM generation. Throughout, authority figures have concentrated their efforts towards policing and critiquing drug-related content in popular music, instead of responding to and addressing the socio-political circumstances that have inspired these songs in the first place.
Grandmaster Flash – White Lines (Don’t Do It), 1983 Original | Source: nbamv/YouTube
This is not an endorsement of hard drugs, nor is it an endorsement of songs with drug references. Rather, this piece is about acknowledging the significant roles these songs and their lyrics play in reflecting the nuances of our society. Evidently, artists write songs about drugs not just to celebrate but also to caution against its ills. To dismiss songs and artists simply because of the presence of drugs in their lyrics would be ignoring their artistic intentions — instead, making our own assumptions — as well as the socio-political circumstances that might play a role in their songwriting and storytelling. Music is one of the most powerful and sophisticated artistic forms of communication we have as a species, and, when leveraged properly, its ability to permeate the different layers of society to convey a message can be utilized to real, positive effect. Songs that addresses drugs directly allows its listeners to consider the reality that, while frequently hidden and stigmatized, is omnipresent and pervasive. Behind every drug, there is a drug-taker. Instead of fixating on the drug of choice, perhaps it is a better use of our time to instead listen to the story, and appreciate the substantive role a particular substance might have in telling it.
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