Ok. I may be blowing up the blog with this one. But here it goes.
Wiz Khalifa featuring Snoop Dogg, “Young, and Wild and Free”
A few weeks back, my brother wrote a great post about dealing with his students’ attitudes about life and, in passing, things like substance abuse. He talked about their difficult lives and the way that music influences their views about the world. He self-mockingly provides a PSA when he writes:
I love the vibe of this song and dislike much of the content. My one major problem with Wiz is the constant reference to and glorification of marijuana. I personally don’t care what he does on his own time. However, he definitely influences young folks all around to think that smoking pot is not only ok, but actually a good thing that will make you have fun all the time
Now, the song I have above was a big hit last summer and I found the ‘vibe’ fun too, but I couldn’t help but get a little angry and uncomfortable when it came to the lyrics and the execution of the lyrics (performed by a chorus that sounds like adolescents defending their substance abuse:
So what we get drunk
So what we don’t sleep (smoke weed)
We’re just having fun
We don’t care who sees
So what we go out
That’s how its supposed to be
Living young and wild and free
I don’t want you to worry that this post is going to be more soap-boxing, or high-horsing. I want you to know that it is. See, I fear that the art I love and many of the songs I adore are part of a larger trend glorifying, justifying, prevaricating about and equivocating on drug abuse.
Fats Waller, “The Reefer Song”
Drugs have been a part of the music scene for much longer than anyone can possibly guess. Shit, ancient Greek lyric poets sang the praises of wine… Fats always sings well—but I worry about the birth of coolness and the jazzman’s tea.
Let’s start with some bona fides and confessions. I am no kind of teetotaler. In fact, in my life I have been accused of being something of the opposite. I spent way too long in my 20s drinking far too much and the Family J comes from a region where marijuana use is viewed as acceptable if not a sign of normalcy.
In fact, our father (once we or at least I was old enough) used to try to proselytize on the virtues of marijuana (over and against alcohol) to my peers when he visited me at college. His routine was affable and memorable enough that some friends of mine dubbed him the Apostle of Pot.
Rick James, “Mary Jane”
Ah, Rick James. Always the paragon of normalcy. I almost used Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary-Jane” here, but I like James more. I don’t know what it is. I have never liked Tom Petty that much. I mean, I know he’s talented and people like his songs, but I can’t imagine buying a Tom Petty album.
Because I grew up during the height of the “Just Say No” drug war and was part of the D.A.R.E. generation, I was beset by some contradictions in my life. On the one hand, I was told that drugs would kill you and ruin your life. And I had this message broadcast to me in so many different ways. Who could forget the PSA where we were told that a frying egg was our brain on drugs?
Is it wrong that this commercial often made me hungry? My grandmother made the best fried egg sandwiches. I loved them. I could eat one any time.
But while the television and teachers were telling me that drugs were bad, I was also discovering that people who weren’t bad did drugs. And here’s where the confessional narrative comes in: I knew at a youngish age from material evidence that my father smoked marijuana. In fact, I threw more than one fit about it after I had been trained by D.A.R.E. to resist.
Perhaps part of my rage was just an outcropping of typical pre-adolescent anger at realizing that parents aren’t perfect beings. But part of it was also disappointment in the world around me and, deep-down-inside, fear that I too would end up imperfect. And why wouldn’t I think that? The television told me that “parents who use drugs have children who use drugs”.
D.A.R.E obviously never learned that resistance is futile. I can’t lie about this—I don’t know how many times I used the “I learned it by watching you” line in jest and half-jest in my life.
My response was not to give into imperfection—instead, I hardened and got about as close to straight-edge as possible without actually being so. (I found straight-edge kids to be really annoying, preachy, and too cool for me. Also, I didn’t want to shave my head.) When I was in a band in high school and it came out that all of our fathers smoked marijuana (including the local minister!), the boys thought it would be awesome if we all smoked up together.
But not I. When my bandmates rummaged around to find my father’s roaches (whispering then shouting “jackpot”, because, you know, my dad’s nickname was jack), I remained distant. I didn’t stop them or complain. I just abstained. I didn’t drink, smoke, or anything of the sort.
Eric Clapton, “Cocaine”
Not only did I grow up learning just to say no, but I also grew up in New England after Lenny Bias derailed the plans of the Celtics franchise with an 8-ball. I really did believe (and still want to believe) that doing any amount of cocaine at any time could kill you.
Of course, this resistance was ultimately futile. It was futile for a few reasons. First, I met some pretty girls who drank and thought it was strange not to drink (so, one vice trumped a resistance to another). Second, the I think that the deck was pretty much stacked against me. My father smoked cigarettes. I ended up smoking cigarettes. My father drank (some). I ended up drinking. My father smoked marijuana.
Uncle Tupelo, “I Got Drunk”
Not only does popular music talk about drinking a lot, but as anyone who has ever been in a band before knows it is hard not to drink when you play at bars and live crazy hours. Drug abuse and drinking are thoroughly paired with musicians in popular culture.
Now it would seem kind of ridiculous for me to claim some great sorrow or loss about any of this—my life has turned out pretty well and my dad was a good father. But I had models, friends and experiences that allowed me to bring some perspective to bear on substance use before it got too late—and without going into greater detail, there were moments when things went too far.
The reason I return to this now has to do with something I have been thinking about since I first heard that Wiz Khalifa song. It also has to do with an article I read earlier this year by Thomas Frank in his column for Harper’s Magazine in March (“Blood Sport”) where he argues that gun violence in movies and video games actually has a correlative if not causal relationship with increased gun violence in our culture.
The Beatles, “Yellow Submarine”
I didn’t know that this song was about drugs when I was little. I thought it was really about a yellow submarine. It sounds fun. I almost selected “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but I really feel like that song is just a bit too lame. And, I don’t really like the Beatles. Please, hate me for it.
Frank’s article was hard for me to read because, like many confessed liberals/progressives, I believe so strongly in freedom of expression that I find any restriction on speech nearly unimaginable. But Frank paints a really vivid picture of a society sick with an obsession with gun violence; he persuasively (for me) proposes a feedback loop of representation and action that makes the unthinkable happen incomprehensibly often.
Soul Coughing, “How Many Cans”
When I was in high school I had an evangelical friend who loved Soul Coughing but hated this song because it was about drinking. I thought that was silly. I think he understood something then that I am just seeing now.
Music (especially popular music), I fear, may have a similar effect on our beliefs and attitudes about the way we live our lives, about partying, and drug consumption. I know that this may seem like a bit of alarmist bullshit, but when you stop and consider how many songs celebrate drug or alcohol use in proportion to the few that realistically reflect on its consequences, it may give you some pause.
And this happens in the simplest ways—for instance, in the Soul Coughing song above (in addition to countless other songs), the singer laments his lost love and measures his sorrow against a growing pile of beer cans. Our music performs and enacts for us stress/sorrow coping mechanisms that are entirely bound to substance use. We learn how to grieve from the grief we witness and emulate.
Elliott Smith, “Easy Way Out”
Yeah, the fun part of the post is over. Smith died of a self-inflicted stabbing. Before then, he struggled with drug addiction. I am not saying there is a causal relationship, but I wouldn’t argue with that contention.
Lessons about drug and alcohol use aren’t just tied to sorrow and stress coping, but music also celebrates substance abuse for good times as well. Who can forget Dr. Dre’s braggadocio/imperative “Smoke weed everyday”? Turn on the radio and count out the songs that positively depict substance use for any emotional state. Weigh them against songs that depict it negatively. How does D.A.R.E even begin to combat that?
I don’t want to be misunderstood as claiming that any of this music is a direct cause of drug use. Instead, along with movies, literature that romanticizes substance use (Hemingway’s drunks and Kerouac’s ludes, for example), and television, we are casualized to substance use as a normal part of life. What do I mean by this? Soldiers are dehumanized by war; flesh is desensitized by overuse and misuse; spirits are habituated to the normalcy of a concept by repetition. What we see frequently and without mention around us, we are almost incapable of questioning.
The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper”
I didn’t know what this song was about as a kid. Now I do. This song is one of many reasons why the classic Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles. There, I said it.
To repeat, I don’t think that music is responsible for drug use. I do think that it is part of another feedback loop in a society that has something of an epidemic. Let’s play with numbers for a minute. According to the CDC from a study made in the years 2005-8, 11% of Americans aged 12 years and older take antidepressants; 14% of them have taken medication for 10 years or longer and over 67% of those on antidepressants have actually seen a mental health professional in the last year. According to a meta-study of such figures, this amounts to a 400% increase in antidepressant use from 1988 to 2008. According to other (self-reported studies), 8.9 percent of the population over the age of 12 were regular or current users of illicit drugs, the most commonly abused drug after alcohol is marijuana (and then prescription painkillers) and that deaths related to overdoses have increased 540% since 1980. According to the NIH, nearly 8% of men and women combined report drinking nearly every day while 15% confessed to drinking 3-4 times a week.
So, let’s add this up: by conventional figures (and I would guess that the number is low because most people underreport their drinking and drug use) 35% of the adult population in the US relies on drinking and/or drugs as a regular part of their lives. We are thoroughly casualized to the idea that 1/3 of our population needs some sort of chemical alteration merely to move from one day to the next.
Afroman, “Because I Got High”
When I first heard this song, I thought it was really funny. It is. But it is also really sad.
Let me go back to the lyrics of the Khalifa track. “So What” if you get drunk and high? The libertarian in me wants to say that, of course, it is ok to get stoned and that the drug-war is a titanic waste of money and creates indefensible violence. The Mainer in me wants to say that my body is mine to do with as I please.
But the problems with even marijuana are manifold. As those who love it will claim, it isn’t addictive (physically); yet it is addictive psychologically. And the physiological effects are not negligible. Any substance that alters the chemical make-up of the brain can create permanent changes when used in excess. First, as some studies show regular smoking alters the development of an adolescent brain. Recent studies also show that long term marijuana use affects motivation and ambition. I could go on, but I am not an MD.
For me, the bigger problem is that Wiz’s lyrics reflect severe and endemic casualization. It is unthinkable to the singers that there may be something wrong with smoking and drinking or that it may be harmful. The most frightening and objectionable thing is that they seem incapable of questioning why they are using these substances. The song is hedonistic, yes. The sentiment is unreflective, true. But the people who sing it are already successful. Those who enjoy the song and imitate its affectations, like my brother’s students, are not. And living out its values may ensure that they never will be.
Eminem, “Going Through Changes”
Eminem confesses his troubles with drugs and the horrors of recovery. A brave man.
I don’t really have any explanation for the cultural prevalence of drug abuse. I think part of it is that life really is long and hard; that the modern world is not only filled with more hope but it is filled with more disappointment; that those who don’t have are more cognizant than ever of the way that those who do live; that a matrix of industries (pharmaceutical, medical, insurance etc.) exists to create new drug addicts and facilitate their sickness; and that we have more leisure time to reflect upon our (meaningless lives) and to engage in drug abuse than at any time in human history.
I also shudder at my desire to lament the lives not lived well because I know that such an idea is based on my subjective concept of what a life lived well means. But I can at least admit my part in it and then wonder what that means. And, the saddest part of it all? This makes me feel like I need a beer.
Et tu, frater?