The turning point that marked a shift towards the adoption of the misguided idea that music serves as a tool for promoting illicit drug use can be traced at least as far back as the emergence of the genre of the psychedelic music of the 1960s and 1970s. Building upon daring musical and lyrical innovations of the 1950s rock and rollers, psychedelic music went leaps beyond the controversial figures of 1950s music, such as Elvis Presley, by experimenting radically with sounds, lyrics, and even the length of songs themselves (Whiteley, 1992). Before examining psychedelic music in depth, though, it is important to understand what kind of effect rock music had on the American consciousness and on social attitudes, and how this seismic shift in the understanding of music—and, by extension, drugs—would determine the trajectory of the genres that would develop in its wake. Whiteley (1992) contends that rock music can rightfully claim the title to being superior “over all previous popular musical forms,” which she supports by noting that, with rock, music had expanded beyond the boundaries of exclusive groups of listeners to include all of society (p. 1). With rock music, Whiteley (1992) asserts, music had surpassed its classical role of playing a decorative, beautifying function that edified and elevated a society as advanced and civilized, a paradigm that followed the more active and functional role that music had played in early human societies. Emerging as it did during “a period of expanded and heightened social, political and psychological awareness,” it was inevitable that music would become a tool for responding to and ventilating about social and political concerns (Whiteley, 1992, p. 1). Music had a message, and the message was that listeners should “explore the politics of consciousness, ‘love, loneliness, depersonalization, [and] the search for the truth of the person….” (Whiteley, 1992, p. 1). What made rock music a “cultural phenomenon rather than a political movement [was] that it [moved beyond] ideology to the level of consciousness, seeking to transform our deepest sense of the self, [and] the environment” (Whiteley, 1992, p. 1). One notices, then, the return to the notion that music was a force for transcendental experience.

The lyrics and innovative sounds of rock were disturbing to the establishment, however, and coupled with larger political and social factors—including the Red Scare—authority figures were reacting within a general atmosphere marked by fear about the future of America; naturally, they worried about the impact rock music could have on society. Such concern was compounded when the role that drugs played in rock culture was revealed. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine profoundly the issue of why musicians used drugs, common knowledge suggests that the stresses of fame and its demands have long been mitigated by drug use, both licit and illicit. By this time in American history, Prohibition had come and gone, but Americans’ profoundly ambivalent attitude about illicit drug use remained, and the idea of the future drug control strategy that would come to be known as the war on drugs was in its seedling stage. Drugs were already beginning to be linked, however speciously, with various forms of social deviance, including crime and declines in certain markers of social well-being; the combination of music considered rebellious and drugs considered dangerous was thus a powerful ideological cocktail.

Then came the 1960s and the emergence of the genre known as psychedelic music, which, in part, sprang out of the growing drug culture. Both drugs and music were, in a certain sense, reaffirming the common ties that had historically bound them together, especially that of the transcendental experience. As Whiteley (1992) points out, both drugs and popular music had been branded by 1950s authority figures as dangerous, or at least potentially so, and by the 1960s, musical artists (many of whom were also drug users) began to reclaim both drugs and music as tools of an emerging counter-culture, whose members were united in the shared quest for transcendence, particularly of the social and political problems plaguing the country: the Vietnam War, systemic and institutionalized racism, and gender discrimination, to name just a few. This counter-culture of drugs and music, writes Whiteley (1992), “was largely concerned with alternative modes of living which involved, to a great extent…exploring the imagination and self-expression” (p. 3). In short, both music and drugs could be used to manipulate reality and to help users to exist outside of reality, if only for a short time (Whiteley, 1992).

What made psychedelic music so exciting to its fans and so frightening to its critics was that it seemed to mimic the kinds of feelings and experiences that users achieved through illicit drugs. Whiteley (1992) explains that the music of the late 1960s and 1970s, especially that by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and even the Beatles, was characterized by musical styles and sounds that played with “the manipulation of timbres (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background) and collages….” (p. 4). The absence of verbal language or the strange and seemingly non-sensical word salad of lyrics were also typical of psychedelic music. Critics conflated this musical interpretation of the drug experience to be the conveyance of a message that encouraged listeners to use drugs. The fact that the major musical figures of this genre were using drugs seemed evidence enough to justify such a claim, which itself was further supported, at least by critics, by noting the overall increase in the incidence and prevalence of drug use in society at large (Whiteley, 1992).

The musical heirs of the psychedelic era did nothing to attenuate such concerns; in fact, they did everything, it seemed, to exacerbate them. Although rappers and grunge rockers may not seem to be direct descendants of psychedelic musicians, their experimental styles in sounds and lyrics, as well as their refusal to reject drugs as a part of musical culture and the larger panorama of society, all seem to confirm that the roots of the musical family tree may be tangled, but they are all connected. The criticism of the relationship between drugs and music has only grown louder and more strident in recent years, directed in particular to the rap and grunge rock genres. Critics of these two genres contend that rappers and grunge rockers do not merely sanction drug use, but they glorify it and, in doing so, foster the escalation of drug use and all of its attendant social ills among the nation’s youth. While some rappers and grunge rockers have, like many musicians before them, been accused of using drugs and have actually been convicted of illegal drug use or have even died from overdoses, the “glorification” argument is a reductionist oversimplification that avoids an analysis of more profound concerns that are expressed—both overtly and subtly—in both of these genres. Pinn (1999), writing about gangsta rap and progressive rap, noted that critics have often honed in on violent, drug-related lyrics, plucked them out of context, and used these as evidence to support their claims that rap is an endorsement of illicit drug use and a deviant drug subculture. The claims are further substantiated by pointing to marketing and media messages about these kinds of music that supposedly revel in the promotion of drug use. The fancy cars, exclusive clothing, excessive jewelry often associated with rappers and the scraggly, starved look of grunge rockers suggest two very different but equally destructive types of drug cultures in the minds of critics wary of these two genres.