Drugs and Music: What is the link?

Drugs and Music: What is the link?

Following the cocaine controversy of this year’s Eurovision, we explore why there seems to be a link between drug use and popular music. 

*This article does not condone the use of recreational drugs.

Eurovision 2021 had the same glamour, glitz and little bit of ridiculousness as always. However this year, there was also the debate as to whether Italy’s Damiano David (vocalist of the winning band) had sniffed a line of cocaine on international television. One drug test later and on the 25th May, The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) released a statement saying “no drug use took place in the Green Room and we consider the matter closed.” It is fair to say that snorting cocaine on a family show with over eight million viewers is a big no, but hasn’t the use of recreational drugs always infiltrated the music industry? 

Lines of cocaine
Lines of cocaine, a popular recreational drug. Image by Colin Davis/Unsplash

Throughout history, drugs have been used by musicians to enhance creativity and then by listeners to enhance their listening experience. It can be argued that songs can even mimic the feelings of euphoria caused by drug use. ‘Heroin’ by The Velvet Underground is rough and desperate sounding, while the synths and combined vocals of ‘Never Let Me Go Again’ by Depeche Mode is arguably euphoric.

Music Genres Have Been Born Out of Drug Use

Whole genres have been influenced by drug use. Psychedelic and acid rock would not have happened without LSD, while house and rave culture was fueled by ecstasy. References to drug use within popular music can be traced back to the 1930’s swing musicians. Of course, both music and drugs existed prior to swing and blues music, however these artists were particularly open about cannabis use within their lyrics. A huge social swing in the 60’s and 70’s helped normalise LSD and acid.

Notably, the creation of ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles is credited with the usage of LSD. Alongside this, the development of Acid Rock gained more exposure and recognition via The Doors, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Grateful Dead. Drug references within music became normal.

A hazy scene in a club
Drugs are often used in clubs and at gigs. Image:  Alexander Popov/Unsplash

These references remained normal until the tragic deaths of many prominent musicians. Perhaps it wasn’t until the deaths of Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; Sid Vicious; Brian Jones and Jim Morrision that people began to understand the devastating effects of drug use, in particular heroin. People were dying young and suddenly, something that was terrifying for artists and their fans. Billy Murcia, original drummer for the New York Dolls died of an overdose aged just twenty one.

An Anti-Drug Narrative Followed a Surge in Pro-Drug Music

It was the deaths of such prominent musicians that led to an anti-drug narrative to spread throughout the music industry. This was especially prominent with the early developments of Hip Hop in New York in the 70’ and 80’s. This style of rap was especially raw. It was both political and condemning, stating that drugs held young people back.

A notable mention is ‘The Message’ (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who rapped “you lived so fast but died so young,” in protest of addiction and dealing. At the time this song was praised by critics for being so socially aware. This narrative could also be seen within rock. ‘Cocaine’ is arguably Eric Clapton’s most popular song; a song that is distinctly anti-drug. Pete Townsend of The Who has been incredibly open about his previous addictions and now campaigns for better rehabilitation and support services.

Perhaps the reason drugs have always found a way into lyrics is down to the simple fact; people sing/write about what they know. For example, The Beastie Boys would often rap about producer Russel Simmons’ love of ‘angel dust’. So when addiction and overdoses came to the forefront of the music industry, this inspired many of the anti-drug lyrics and songs.

Attitudes Towards Hard Drugs in the Music Industry Are Changing

Generally attitudes towards ‘harder’ drugs such as cocaine and heroin remain negative within the music industry. The deaths of Amy Winehouse, Lil Peep and Juice WRLD were a shocking emphasis of the devastating effects of addiction. Lil Peep and Juice WRLD were casualties of the painkiller epidemic ripping across America, where dangerous painkillers such as xanax and fentanyl are used recreationally.

‘Lesser’ drugs such as cannabis and MDMA do not receive the same criticism. Cannabis is often referred to positively within songs and popular culture. For example, ‘Because I Got High’ by Afroman comedically lists everything he was unable to achieve because he got high instead. Miley Cyrus has also been publicly vocal about her use of ‘happy Drugs’, i.e cannabis and MDMA. 

It is clear that drug references still play a part in the music industry and perhaps behind the scene, out of the public eye it is accepted. The effects of drug use means it will never be accepted into mainstream society, which was why the potential of drug use at Eurovision was so unacceptable. Just because recreational drugs have a direct influence on music, this does not mean it is something to promote. 


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