Substance use mentions in top 20 songs


How do references to drinking and illicit drug use in pop music reflect youth culture and the ‘YOLO’ phenomenon?

Perth researchers have examined references to alcohol and other drugs in top 20 songs between 1990 and 2015.

Of 508 songs, 15% featured references to alcohol, tobacco and/or illicit drugs.

Just under 20% of popular songs examined mentioned alcohol alone.

They have found that substance mentions increased over time such that the second half of the study period accounted for three-quarters of all references.

The peak period of mentions was 2008-2012, with 2010 exhibiting an especially high prevalence rate for alcohol references.

The researchers suggest that this peak was linked to the ‘YOLO’, or ‘You Only Live Once’, phenomenon that also peaked around that time.

A marked decline in alcohol mentions between 2010 and 2013 was also accompanied by a decline in the popularity of the ‘YOLO’ cultural trend.

Lead author Professor Simone Pettigrew, from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University, says young people were heavily exposed to popular music with estimates of about three hours per day among 15 to 18-year-olds.

“Music is one form of popular culture that plays an important role in defining and reinforcing society’s expectations of substance use, including what is and isn’t considered appropriate,” says Professor Pettigrew.

“This research suggests that popular music across a range of mediums, including radio, music video television programs and YouTube, is exposing young people to large amounts of substance-related content.

“This finding is in line with estimates that American adolescents are exposed to about 34 alcohol mentions in popular music every day.

“Given the ‘YOLO’ phenomenon peaked in 2011 before decreasing in popularity, this could be a potential contributing factor to the reduction in mentions of partying in song lyrics since that time.”

The researchers say monitoring music lyrics is a way they can gain clearer insight into youth culture and substance use among this group.

“The link between the reduction in the consumption of alcohol among youths and the references to alcohol in top 20 songs may indicate popular music closely mirrors actual consumption rates,” says Professor Pettigrew.

“This relationship indicates it may be worth further exploring the possibility that changes in popular music may be a useful barometer for trends in youth substance use.”

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