By Christa Banister
Clichés are often clichés with good reason. One that has definitely stood the test of time is that drug and alcohol use often goes hand in hand with rock ’n’ roll.
While there’s certainly no shortage of decibel-cranking songs where everything from cocaine to crystal meth to heroin is name checked in the lyrics, the presence of mind-altering substances in popular music actually spans the genres.
From the experimental jazz age when pioneers of bebop like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk reigned supreme 1 to the swinging 60s when rock ‘n’ roll and protest folk songs became mainstream to the modern-day hip-hop stylings of Jay-Z, Eminem and the late Lil Peep, drugs have not only been credited with helping ease the pressure of fame for many artists but have also been credited as a way to expand their creative potential.
Even today’s country music — which has often been considered a more family-friendly alternative to mainstream rap or rock with its salt-of-the-earth ruminations on the simple joys of small-town life — has been found using drug references in lyrics. A recent study featuring a sample size of more than a million songs concluded that country music has surpassed rock and rap genres in singing about drugs, with marijuana leading the way, followed by cocaine and meth.2
Drug Use and Drinking Goes Mainstream
For her latest album, Golden Hour, popular country artist Kacey Musgraves said psychedelics made a “giant impression” on her. Citing how they made her music better, she claims that recreational use made her miss her family and ultimately care more about them and her place in the universe.3
In “Smoke a Little Smoke” and “I’m Gettin’ Stoned,” country fan favorite Eric Church also isn’t shy about his marijuana use, while Ashley Monroe prefers “weed instead of roses” in one of her hit songs.
Another drug that’s become synonymous with country music both past and present is alcohol. Not only is drinking a focal point in many songs, but it’s also a mainstay of the live concert experience.4
Capitalizing on this trend, many country artists, including Blake Shelton, Toby Keith and Miranda Lambert, have their own brands of vodka, mescal and wine. Others, such as Jason Aldean and Dierks Bentley, have recently opened bars that carry on the party atmosphere of their concerts.
Heavy drinking is hardly a new phenomenon in country music, with artists like Hank Williams who famously penned “There’s a Tear in My Beer” serving as the ultimate cautionary tale, when he passed away at age 29 after years of alcohol and prescription drug abuse. But while trends may come and go in music, the number of songs where drinking plays a starring role – many of them celebratory, sing-a-long fare, unlike Williams’ more sobering style – has only increased.2
Downers Are the New Uppers in Hip-Hop Circles
It’s no secret that many people often take their cues from the musicians they look up to. This accounts for much of the popularity of a substance like lean or purple drink, which is also called dirty Sprite, sizzurp or purp. Made by combining a codeine-laced cough syrup with soft drinks and sometimes candy, it’s been popularized by chart-topping artists including Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy.
While the concoction is made with easily attainable and perfectly legal substances from a local pharmacy, it can be easy to understatement its potency. Codeine, the main ingredient, is an opiate and produces a feeling of euphoria. It’s highly addictive and can lead to harmful withdrawal symptoms between doses.
Even as opioid overdoses claim the lives of 115 people a day in the United States,5 everything from OxyContin to Adderall to Percocet continues to get free advertising from a variety of music genres, including modern hip-hop. While rap music has always been full of references to recreational drug use, the move from celebrating uppers to downers — uppers being a street name for drugs that increase wakefulness and downers having the opposite effect — has made for some very dangerous listening.
A few hours before his death, 21-year-old rapper Lil Peep bragged about taking six Xanax in a video, while another emerging hip-hop artist Lil Pump celebrated a milestone of a million Instagram followers with a Xanax-shaped cake. Drake, known as being one of the more “clean cut” members of the hip-hop community admits to keeping Xanax in an Advil bottle in case a girl staying over needs one — yet another sign that prescription drug use has become unabashedly mainstream and something parents need to be openly discussing with their children and teens before they hear it on their playlists.
1 Sampson, Kevin. “Chemical Bonds.” The Guardian, November 15, 2008.
2 Scaccia, Annamarya. “Why Country Music Sings About Drugs More Than Any Other Genre.” Rolling Stone, May 4, 2017.
3 Mizoguchi, Karen. “Kacey Musgraves Talks ‘Giant Impression’ of Psychedelics & ‘Horses—‘ Double Standards for Women.”
4 Yahr, Emily. “Sobering Truths.” The Washington Post, June 28, 2018.
5 “Opioid Overdose Crisis.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, March 2018.