While the music and the media and marketing messages might, in fact, reflect more than a passing interest in drugs and drug culture, Pinn (1998) contends that the attempt to associate some causative correlation between the two is pointless. Such efforts, he argues, obviate the acknowledgment and discussion of underlying social dissatisfaction that is often the impetus both for creative expression and drug use (Pinn, 1999). Pinn (1999) argues for a closer examination of lyrics and messages in context. Citing a 1991 song by the rap group, The Geto Boys, Pinn (1999) explains how rappers’ references to drugs are often a reflection of their anger and sense of hopelessness about the opportunities that are available to them and to their communities: “Day by day it’s more impossible to cope,/I feel like I’m the one that’s doin’ dope” (p. 10). Notice that these words do not advocate drug use; they simply state that the speaker feels in an altered state—and not a good one, at that—because of the impossibility of his circumstances. While arguing for a more close and contextualized reading of lyrics, Pinn (1999) acknowledges that he is not surprised by the quick and reactionary response that charges rappers with advocating drugs or even being drug users themselves. After all, Pinn (1999) writes, critics of emergent musical genres have always demonstrated their reluctance to really examine the sounds, the lyrics, and all of the packaging associated with the songs because doing so would imply that certain profound social ills must be acknowledged and dealt with. Thus, those exposing those ills must be scapegoated, for in the words of Camus, “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, humanity feels an alien, a stranger…. exile is without remedy” (as cited in Pinn, 1999, p. 10). Rather than feel exposed and without remedy, it has been easier and more convenient to point the finger at musicians who pioneer experimental genres.

The same sorts of observations that Pinn (1999) made about rap music can also be made of a very different type of genre, grunge rock. Grunge rock was a genre that emerged during the 1990s in which the lyrics of rock music were updated with more self-disclosure and more angst than ever before (Edelstein, 1997). As with the musicians of all the preceding genres since the 1950s, grunge rockers appeared to be deeply entrenched in drug culture (Edelstein, 1997). While the sound of the music might have lacked the complexity and thoughtfulness of the psychedelic musicians, Edelstein (1997) contends that grunge rockers more than made up for this limitation. “[F]ar more vital,” he writes, “was the struggle against cynicism and profit, and the offering of hope, visceral honesty, and creativity” (pp. 117-118). As was the case with rock, psychedelic music, and rap, it was the “visceral honesty” part of the grunge rock genre that preoccupied observers who were wary of the ways that such discontent expressed lyrically could potentially unmask social ills and create a public that demanded something be done about them.

In many ways, grunge music was not just a musical genre, but a lifestyle, and grunge musicians and their fans clustered in particular geographic regions—especially the Pacific Northwest cities of Seattle and Portland (Edelstein, 1997). Grunge rockers, more than any other group of musicians before them, lived their lives as open books, partly out of choice and partly out of the accelerating creep of the popular media into all corners of famous people’s lives (Edelstein, 1997). Just because the public was aware of grunge rocker’s drug use and abuse, Edesltein (1997) argued, did not mean that their music—or even their own behavior—was an endorsement for drugs or a message to fans that they should immerse themselves in drug use. Rather, it was, at it has always been, a response—albeit, perhaps, maladaptive—to the pressures of fame and performance, as well as a means of escape from the larger social ills that musicians often feel compelled to respond to by documenting them and exploring them in their music (Edelstein, 1997).

One of the grunge rockers who became iconic not only for his music but for his complicated relationship with drugs was Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana. “Cobain’s [personal] turmoil,” writes Edelstein (1997), “was constantly expressed in public….” (p. 120). He goes on to laundry list the causes and expressions of Cobain’s turmoil: “his use of drugs, his awful stomach pains, marital woes, sexual ambiguities, self-doubts, and skepticism over stardom,” to name just a few (Edelstein, 1997, p. 120). It is hard to discern what is the cause of turmoil here and what is the antidote, but what is clear is that Cobain’s angst was not unique to him, nor was the angst and turmoil transformed into lyrics sung by other grunge rockers. As with rap music, a closer reading of lyrics shows that grunge rockers were not calling for a massive adoption of drug use; rather, they were calling, over and over again, and consistently, for a more thoughtful, more sensible world. In the Nirvana song, “Serve the Servants,” for instance, Cobain decries “Self-appointed judges” who “judge/More than they have sold” (in Edelstein, 1997, p. 121), and in the song “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” Cobain sang, almost chant-like, “Hate, hate your enemies/Save, save your friends/Find, find your place/Speak, speak the truth” (in Edelstein, 1997, p. 121). These, like the rappers’ lyrics, are not words intended to incite massive social disorganization through drug use; rather, they are the desperate lyrics of singers who want to transcend social realities by resolving them. Since the message falls on the deaf ears of the establishment, drugs often became—and become—the refuge and means of transcendence.

Drugs and music have a long and intimate history. In the earliest human societies, there is clear and compelling evidence that drugs and music were socially sanctioned, used by leaders to help themselves and their followers achieve a pinnacle of spiritual insight and to foster a sense of cohesive community. Over the centuries, music and drugs both assumed very different roles, both becoming stigmatized by authority figures who considered them to be threatening to the social order. Yet, musicians persisted in their innovations and their insistence that they had a right—and, perhaps, even an obligation—to express through sound and lyric their unease and dissatisfaction with certain social circumstances. With each new genre, the establishment worked harder, not to correct the wrongs about which these musicians sang, but to conflate maladaptive illicit drug use with music. This strategy of avoidance has had many negative consequences, not the least of which is a spurious association between drugs and music that has maligned both the history and tradition of the positive and adaptive functions that the relationship between music and drugs has had for numerous societies. In the process, the establishment has diverted valuable energy and resources to a false battle. When they could be appropriating those resources to combating real social threats, they have consistently chosen instead to use music and drugs as convenient scapegoats.

Despite this pattern of contemporary misinterpretation, musicians continue to claim their right to creative license. When all else fails and when pressures of fame become to great, they also, often, claim their right to use drugs as a means of coping. Rather than continue to pathologize the relationship between drugs and music, it would be useful to understand the history between the two and realize how both are merely responding to profound social ills.


Edelstein, A. (1997). Total propaganda: From mass culture to popular culture. Mahwah,NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fuller, D.C. (2000). Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American religious history. Boulder,CO: Westview Press.

Pinn, A.B. (1999). “How ya livin?”: Notes on rap music and social transformation. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 23(1), 10.

Whiteley, S. (1992). The space between the notes: Rock and the counter-culture. New York: Routledge.