Tue, Oct 28, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Pop lyrics no longer sing praises of durgs

Contrary to popular belief, music since the 1960s has viewed drugs in an increasingly less positive light, according to research

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Young musicians today are more likely than those of previous generations to decry the harm that drugs can cause, according to research in America.

The study, based on an analysis of drug lyrics in English-language popular music since the 1960s, was last week highlighted as one of the few pieces of good news in the annual survey by the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction, the EU's drugs agency.

The research, published by the University of Texas at Austin, explodes the conventional wisdom that popular music encourages teenagers to abuse drugs.

The author, John Markert of Cumberland University, Tennessee, says that although there has always been a generally hostile attitude towards heroin and other hard drugs, teenage listeners today "are being exposed to more negative images of marijuana and LSD than older listeners."

The research comes as British MPs are preparing to vote on Wednesday to approve the reclassification of cannabis.

Songs dealing with illegal drugs have always dotted popular music. In the 1930s, Fats Waller dreamed about a "5-foot" joint in Viper's Drag, and Harry "the Hipster" Gibson posed the question: "Who put the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine?"

But it was not until the 1960s that it became a constant theme. Markert's study, Sing a Song of Drug Use-Abuse, is based on analysis of 784 songs since the 1960s that explicitly mention an illegal substance. It shows that, while heroin and cocaine have largely been treated with hostility by musicians, their attitude towards cannabis and LSD has changed sharply over the years.

Markert found 100 songs with lyrics about heroin, more than half from the 1990s. But whether it is Lou Reed's "It's my wife, it's my life" from the song Heroin, Neil Young's "I watched the needle take another man" from The Needle and the Damage Done, or Pearl Jam's "It's my blood" from Blood, they demonstrate an increasingly hostile attitude in the 1990s.

Nearly twice as many songs deal with cocaine and they are also generally negative. Some from the 1960s and 1970s such as "She don't lie, she don't lie, cocaine", from Eric Clapton's version of JJ Cale's Cocaine, and the Grateful Dead's "Drivin' that train, high on cocaine", are hardly negative. But by the 1990s the attitude is far more trenchant with rap music presenting cocaine, particularly crack, as a loser drug. It seems there has been a much bigger shift in attitudes towards marijuana and LSD, and musicians use their hostility to drugs to attack the older generation.

Markert says that, while Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze personified 1960s acid rock, four fifths of the songs that explicitly mention LSD are post 1980 and overwhelmingly hostile. "Contemporary young people view LSD as the drug of older, screwed-up middle-aged people," he says.

The majority of the songs in the sample are about cannabis and generally take a positive approach, although the more recent songs are more equivocal. Few 1960s songs explicitly mention marijuana, mainly because they would have been banned from radio.

The veteran country singer Willie Nelson produced a platinum-selling album, Hempilation, in 1995 singing the praises of cannabis.

In the 90s, several over-30s musicians, such as JJ Cale, Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow, released albums that lauded marijuana and were geared to an older, more marijuana-accepting audience.

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