Neil Dowd explores the subculture within the music industry that glorifies and encourages drug use – and how this has quickly turned to abuse for many musicians.

‘Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’. The colloquial phrase popularised in 1977 by Ian Drury refers to the debaucherous lifestyle stereotypically linked to rock musicians in the 1960s and 70s. However, the link between substance use and various musical genres and scenes has been an ongoing discussion (and issue in the eyes of some) dating back as early as the 1930s, with many jazz and swing musicians of the time being open with their use of cannabis, even touching upon the matter in their lyrical content. These references can still be found in modern popular music, with The Weeknd’s ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’, ‘Chandelier’ by Sia and ‘Rockstar’ by Post Malone being just three examples of many highly charting songs that refer to substance use in their lyrical content.   In the eyes of some, the problem is that referring to these substances in the media can spark a curiosity to try them, with the demises of Amy Winehouse, Mac Miller and Lil Peep being a few of far too many instances where the line between use and abuse has been so easily crossed. The loss of a life way too young has been the ultimate repercussion.

One example of an early reference to recreational drug use in recorded music was ‘Reefer Man’, a song performed by Cab Calloway in 1933 comedy film International House. Even then, the casual references to substance use attracted the attention of many journalists at the time. A particularly noteworthy article written on this matter was ‘Exposing the Marijuana Drug Evil in Swing Bands’, a piece published in the music magazine Radio Stars, written by Jack Hanley. In this article, Hanley recalls a conversation he had undertaken with a band leader, discussing how a younger musician in the band “used the weed so consistently that he was quite undependable”. He then went on the comment upon how the individual’s drug use affected his mental health, stating that “the fits of deep depression reefers so often produce would seize him until he had to be restrained from suicide”.

The 1960s and 70s were a time when references to drug use in music could be found in abundance. A big factor that contributed to this was the rising mainstream popularity of psychedelic music; a wide range of genres influenced by psychedelia. Psychedelia is the term used to describe the subculture of people who often use psychedelic drugs such as LSD, mushrooms and mescaline. Typically, the aim of psychedelic music was to recreate or reflect upon the experience of using drugs in order to convey this experience to the listener.

However, many users also used psychedelic art forms as a means to enhance their own experiences whilst using drugs. Some distinctive musical elements of this genre was the use of distorted electric guitar and sitar in the instrumentation, the incorporation of electronic effects and the use of recording techniques which were viewed as experimental at this time. Harshly panning the music from one side of the stereo mix to the other is just one example of this. The rising popularity of psychedelic music coincided with the increased commonality of recreational drugs due to their mass production, which led to them being much easier to obtain.

In his article for The Globe and Mail entitled ‘Russell Smith: Exposés on EDM festivals shift long overdue blame’, Smith cited previous genres that were heavily associated with
drugs, referring to disco and its relation to cocaine as well as punk music’s relationship with heroin. The term Electronic Dance Music (often shortened to EDM) is used to cover a range of percussive electronic music genres and is typically made to complement a nightclub, rave or festival setting. It is often produced for DJ’s to perform in a live setting, creating segues from one track to another. EDM first rose to popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, following the increased popularity in raving and club culture.

In the UK, Garage was the most popular of the EDM genres and saw the height of its success during the 1990s. The musical features that were most typically associated with this sub-genre are a 4/4 percussive rhythm, the use of syncopation on the hi-hats, cymbals and snares, and the use of sampled, and often pitch-shifted vocals from wellknown songs. Whilst Garage was at its most successful in the 90s, there was a brief revival of the genre’s popularity in the early 2010s.  

A few electronic duos found mainstream success while incorporating elements of Garage into their music, Disclosure being a very highly renowned example of this. Much like psychedelic rock, EDM has also been closely associated with the use of recreational drugs, particularly MDMA. Similarly to the psychedelia subculture, this is because the drug is said to heighten the sensory effects that the music and rapid lighting of the club environment have on the user, with users enjoying it for its inhibition reducing effects.    There have been many instances where world-renowned musicians have openly discussed their own experiences and opinions on the matter of drug use outside of their lyrical content. A very recent example of this can be seen through Matty Healy, the frontman of The 1975. When discussing his experiences with drugs, Healy explained how his constant search for fulfillment and stimulation led to addictions to sex and other substances.

Furthermore, in an interview with Matt Wilkinson, he commented that “when I was younger, I always used to dream about being sedated”, continuing to say that drugs were the only thing to temporarily give him that feeling. Healy also touches upon the idea of the romanticisation of substance abuse in this interview, explaining his use of sarcastic or ironic lyrics which show this message to be untrue. Healy maintains that his decision to speak about drugs in his music is a matter of artistic honesty as opposed to a romanticisation of drugs.

In contrast to this, there are also artists who are open advocates for drug use; with Miley Cyrus supporting the use of ‘happy drugs’ remarking that ‘they make you want
to be with your friends’. Many individuals in the hardcore punk scene are directly opposed to this idea, identifying as part of the ‘straight edge’ subculture. This term refers to an individual who refrains from using alcohol or any other recreational drug with artists such as James Hetfield, Patty Walters and Tyler The Creator being just a few musicians who identify with this subculture.

The relationship between drugs and music has arguably never been more prominent. With the rules regarding censorship on the radio becoming a lot less strict than they may have been twenty years ago, it is now much more common to hear references to drugs on a daily basis. This therefore only heightens the importance of the conversation about drug use in order to break down any stigma surrounding it and to provide those who are looking to experiment safe means to do so.

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