The following was written by guest blogger Dr. Brian Primack, University of Pittsburgh researcher and author of the new study Content Analysis of Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drugs in Popular Music.
Let me start out by emphasizing what this article was not: it does not show the effect of music lyrics on young people. It was just a content analysis. Still, this is an important starting point. The next step will be to conduct more careful research that actually tries to determine what effects – if any – musical lyrics have on substance use behavior.
Our main findings were that about one third of popular songs have some reference to substance use. Because music is so popular, this translates into substantial exposure – we estimate that the average young person will be exposed to 84 music references to substance use a day, or 30,000 references a year.
Although as I mentioned this study does not equate that exposure with behavior, this large exposure is worth considering. It may have implications for substance use education, for instance. If young people are hearing 84 references a day to substance use, most of which glamorize it, what kind of effect can we hope to have from a few hours each year of “anti-drug” education? A more practical and empowering approach may be to teach young people to analyze and evaluate the messages they hear in media regarding substance use. This approach – sometimes called “media literacy” – may help young people doubt the veracity of these messages, which after all are there to sell music and not to “tell it as it is.”
Another important finding from our study was that there are very different patterns in different musical genres regarding both (1) what kind of substance use is portrayed; and (2) what that substance use is associated with. Rap music portrayed a lot of marijuana. Country music portrayed alcohol, but not marijuana. Rock music often showed negative effects of substance use (like addiction). Country music often portrayed substance use with humor.
These kinds of findings lead to more questions. Does the context matter? Is a reference to substance use more likely to cause a change in behavior if it is associated with particular consequences? We would probably imagine that young people would be more likely to model substance use behaviors if they look fun or rewarding. But, that being said, other research has shown that the context might not matter so much – in particular, Dalton, Sargent, et al. showed that smoking in movies is associated with adolescent smoking *regardless* of the context! What will be the answer with music?
Speaking of smoking in movies, some feel that music is probably not as compelling, since it is auditory and not visual. On the other hand, music exposure is much larger than overall movie exposure, and music is famous for being linked to adolescent identity. When Kurt Cobain committed suicide, there was a rash of copy-cat suicides. If young people were willing to follow him to the grave, might some also have been influenced by the substance use he portrayed in his music?