According to a new study, tunes about cannabis are on the rise.
Yes, the public may still be awaiting the likely never-to-be-released third album from The Chronic rapper Dr. Dre, and famed marijuana enthusiast Willie Nelson is currently focused on a Frank Sinatra covers album, but the prevalence of drug and opioid references in Top 40 music has nonetheless increased in the past 30 years.
In an article published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Wayne State University found a “statistically significant increase in the lyrical mention to opioids, marijuana, and alcohol” when comparing popular songs from the last 10 years to their 1980s equivalents. Later in their study, they further assert that “nearly 50 percent of 2016 Top 40’s songs reference drugs or alcohol.”
On the surface, these figures aren’t necessarily surprising. The role of censorship in music — along with television, books, film, and other arts — has changed dramatically in the last three decades. Major labels would never have approved a song like Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It” (which features the troublesome chorus, “Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol”) in 1979. Released in 2009, it spent 14 consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
The lyrical inclusion of cannabis is a byproduct of its evolving place in our culture. For much of the past century, songs that wished to acknowledge pot often did so with thinly veiled coding, like Brewer & Shipley’s 1970 single “One Toke over the Line” or The Beatles’ 1966 “Got to Get You into My Life.” The need for subtlety has evaporated, leading to the much more blatant references contained on tracks like the lyric “Let’s roll another joint” on Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — to say nothing of Afroman’s unmistakable “Because I Got High.”
The study’s authors acknowledge this trend, noting that “public perception of recreational and medicinal marijuana use has evolved significantly during the time period during which we have seen increased lyrical mention of drugs in popular music.” They go on to cite the rise in public approval during the same time span, contrasting a 1969 Gallup poll that found 12 percent of Americans in favor of cannabis legalization, compared with a 2016 version that showed 60 percent of the population in support.
Naturally, one must also wonder which terms this study used to designate a lyrical reference to cannabis. Although many former and currently illicit substances have attracted their fair share of nicknames, a recent Time magazine feature suggested there are more than 1,200 terms related to cannabis. While we can safely assume many of these entries are too obscure to find their way into a Top 40 hit, there are notable differences across regions and geographies when it comes to how we refer to marijuana.
In total, the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine study pinpointed 20 terms, including herb, chronic, ganja, and brocc. (If you have ever referred to cannabis as “brocc,” please let me know). Other words were flagged for further review, as the authors determined it was necessary to examine them within a lyrical context to be certain the artist in question was talking about cannabis. Examples of the latter category include pot, green, grass, and dope.
Overall, the study found that references to marijuana (by any of the twenty names selected by the authors) in Top 40’s songs have risen from 0.6 percent to 17.2 percent between 1986 and 2016. That’s a staggering statistic. Even more shocking is the recent prevalence of opioid references in popular music, which the authors note has “increased most dramatically in recent years, leaping from 1.5 percent of year-end Top 40 hits in the 2000s to 5 percent of year-end Top 40 hits in the evolving 2010s decade.”
Further analysis reveals that the advent of prescription opioid medications in the 1990s — the precursor to today’s appalling overdose epidemic in the U.S. — has inspired the majority (57.1 percent) of songs that reference opioids to “mention prescription opioid medications and not heroin or street slang reference of the drug.” The researchers also point out how the growing acceptance of cannabis correlates with an increase in Top 40 mentions, and question whether the rising number of references to opioids indicates a higher acceptance of those substances as well.
“If reference to opioid medications continues to become ‘casual or trendy,’ as exemplified in the prose of many popularly aired lyrics,” the study warns, “a more targeted public awareness campaign may be warranted to combat this growing national public health concern.”
Meanwhile, as cannabis continues to be more widely and fully understood, it stands to reason that the Top 40 hits of the years to come will be chock-full of green.
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
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