Stop Singing About Drugs: A Bored, Exasperated Plea to 21st-Century Musicians


We had some gentle fun at Wavves’ expense yesterday, but even we have to admit that his new album, Afraid of Heights, is a whole lot better than his earlier work, mainly because he’s actually bothered to write songs this time around. Still, we do have one gripe about the album, namely the fact that it took us no time at all to tick the weed reference off our bingo card — it takes precisely one minute and 14 seconds for Nathan Williams to sing “first we gotta get high.” Yes, people, this may shock you, but Williams is really rather fond of smoking marijuana. Good for him, but really, isn’t it long past time that bands stopped singing about drugs? It’s so… boring.

Drugs and music have a long history, of course. A couple of years back, we looked at the thoughts of a few of our favorite musicians on the idea that drug use can catalyze or augment creativity, an idea that has, for better or worse, been a pretty significant part of rock ‘n’ roll’s mythology over the years. The idea has been around a lot longer than that, too — plenty of jazz musicians got into smack in an effort to emulate Charlie Parker, cocaine was everywhere in the swinging 1920s, and decades before that, proto-rock ‘n’ roller Arthur Rimbaud was writing about getting blotto on absinthe in a quest for a “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses” to inform his poetry.

Still, despite this history, there was still something of the unknown that hung around drugs when rock ‘n’ roll first came along, a kind of clandestine glamor that the musicians of the 1960s and ’70s were eager to embrace. As with plenty of other holdovers from the “golden age” of rock, however, this shit is kinda tired in 2013. We’re not prudish here at Flavorwire, nor are we particularly conservative in our feelings towards drugs. There just isn’t anything particularly mysterious or rebellious about them anymore, not when so much of the economy of Mr. Wavves’ native northern California is based on growing weed (and growers voted against legalization of marijuana because it’d damage the local trade) and even urbanites who aren’t particularly well hooked up can make single phone to get any number of substances delivered to their doorstep.

Whatever aura that might or might not have characterized drug use when rock ‘n’ roll was born has long since dissipated. Drug use is about as quotidian as it gets (as Noel Gallagher once famously said, doing cocaine is as normal for some as “getting up in the morning and having a cup of tea”). These days, it’s far more surprising to meet an adult who’s never tried weed than one who has. That’s not to say that drugs have magically become harmless, of course — but neither is eating fast food or smoking cigarettes or any number of legal pursuits.

Politically, the war on drugs is an ongoing fiasco, and pretty much every politician who isn’t a) a raving lunatic and/or b) up for reelection would most likely admit off the record that legalization (or, at the least, decriminalization) of many substances that people are going to take anyway is probably a better idea than spending gazillions of dollars on prohibition strategies that just don’t work. Meanwhile, people’s heads get cut off in Mexico to keep the coke flowing into the US of A, and the Taliban keep growing opium to finance their oh-so-progressive social policies.

Between this endless global disaster and the pedestrianism of 21st-century drug experiences, it seems more than a little jejeune to make giggling references to getting high in your music these days. And anyway, it’s all been done before, and done many times by now. We’ve had five decades of musicians singing slyly or not so slyly about how much they like drugs, feeding the rebellion mythology that has been around as long as the music itself. We’ve had “Heroin” and “Sister Morphine,” we’ve had “Cocaine” and “White Lines.” We’ve had “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Higher Than the Sun.” We’ve had “Sweet Leaf” and “Legalize It!” We’ve even had Toby Keith singing about smoking weed with Willie Nelson, for Chrissakes.

There’s a big difference between work inspired by drugs and work about drugs, of course — your correspondent occasionally gets teased for only liking junkie music, for example (it’s the tempo, dammit). If the Rimbaudian idea of a derangement of the senses is useful for anything at all, it’s useful for finding new and interesting perspectives to inform your work. Art is most interesting when it’s liberated from the constraints of the self — there is, after all, a literally infinite number of other things you can write about. If all you end up doing is singing about how much you like smoking weed, why bother?

And also, as an aside, the whole idea of rock ‘n’ roll’s mythology is as perniciously destructive as it is anything else: there’s something just a little discomfiting about listening to Wavves singing about how drunk he is in the same week that the world lost Jason Molina to alcohol addiction. It could be that we’re a little sensitive on this point at the moment — watching close friends deal with serious hard drug addictions will do that to you — but since a disproportionate number of musicians have died over the years of overdoses and liver failure and etc., it’s gotten more and more difficult to embrace the whole idea of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll with any great enthusiasm. It seems like a silly trope from another age.

People will, of course, do drugs no matter what musicians or anyone else do or don’t say. Musicians will always try to use them as a creative tool. (In your correspondent’s experience, it’s a pretty solid strategy for getting precisely nothing done, but your mileage may vary, and all that.) Maybe that’s what Nathan Williams is doing, or maybe he just really likes getting high. But either way, great, he should go ahead and do it if it works for him — just, for the love of god, we do wish he’d stop singing about it. It’s really, really dull.