This study demonstrates that explicit substance use is represented in about one-third of the most popular songs in the United States, with alcohol and marijuana referenced most frequently. Overall, explicit substance use is portrayed most frequently in rap music (48 of 62 songs [77%]) and least frequently in pop music (3 of 35 songs [9%]). Substance use is most commonly motivated by peer/social pressure and sex, and it is associated with partying and sex. The social, sexual, emotional, and financial consequences of use are more commonly depicted as positive than negative, whereas the legal and physical consequences of use are generally depicted as more negative than positive.
Because adolescents aged 15 to 18 years are exposed to an average of 2.4 hours of popular music per day,1
our results suggest that the average adolescent is exposed to approximately 84 references to explicit substance use per day, 591 references per week, or 30 732 references per year. This represents a pervasive source of exposure to positive portrayals of substance use. Furthermore, exposure varies substantially by genre: the average adolescent listening wholly to pop would be exposed to 5 references per day, whereas the average adolescent listening wholly to rap would be exposed to 251 references per day.
Our findings were consistent with previous studies showing that alcohol and marijuana use are far more common than tobacco use in popular music. The frequency of tobacco references (2.9%) found in our study was nearly identical to that previously reported.23
However, the reference rate to alcohol that we documented (23.7%) was higher than the 17% reported by Roberts et al.23
There are several possible explanations for these differences in findings. First, portrayal of alcohol use in popular music may be increasing. Second, we only examined the top 279 popular songs, whereas Roberts et al examined 1000 songs. It is possible that the more popular songs contain more references to alcohol. Finally, it is possible that our rigorous method may have been more sensitive in identifying references to alcohol compared with other studies. Often, popular slang terms are used to represent alcohol (sauce
, and juice
) and marijuana (dro
, and haze
) that many youth understand well but with which some coders may not be familiar. By using a complex method involving 4 coders, we may have captured a more complete set of references to substance use.
Documentation of a growing exposure of adolescents to substance use in popular music suggests that further study of the actual effect of this exposure is warranted. Because recent data indicate that exposure to film smoking is one of the strongest risk factors for smoking initiation and progression,4,29
it is reasonable to hypothesize that exposure to substance use in music is also a strong risk factor for substance use initiation and progression. Although music lacks the visual element of film, adolescent exposure to music is much more frequent, accounting for an average of 16 hours each week, compared with about 6 hours each week.30
In addition, music is known to be highly related to personal identity; young people often model themselves in terms of dress, character, and behavior after musical figures.21,31,32
In view of the heavy exposure young people have to substance use in popular music, health education related to substance use may need to be rethought. Currently accepted health education regarding substance use in ninth grade traditionally uses approximately 6 hours over a year.33
However, this study would imply that during that same year the average young person would be exposed to an estimated 30 000 references to substance use in popular music. Health educators, health professionals, and curriculum designers may want to be familiar with the messages young people are receiving regarding substance use in their music so that they can best respond to those messages. Also, this large disparity between the exposure to substance use in popular music and substance abuse education suggests that simply “fighting fire with fire” is not likely to be feasible. Instead, we may need to find creative ways of generating doubt in the minds of young people as to the veracity of the positive substance use messages they receive in their media. One way of doing this might be to include in anti–substance abuse programming more “media literacy,” in which young people learn to analyze and evaluate the media to which they are frequently exposed.34–36
Our results also show that substance use in popular music is commonly associated with some positive and some negative consequences. However, the negative consequences manifested (legal and physical) are ones that are generally not as concerning to adolescents as the positive consequences (social, sexual, emotional, and financial). Developmentally, many adolescents are not concerned about legal and physical ramifications of actions because they often consider themselves “invincible” with regard to these realms.37
However, they are simultaneously concerned about social, sexual, emotional, and financial issues.38–40
Thus, whereas current health education often emphasizes physical and legal ramifications of substance use, it might be preferable to instead focus on rebutting the positive consequences (social, sexual, emotional, and financial) of substance use portrayed in popular music.
Finally, our results show that different genres portray different (1) substances, (2) amounts of substances, and (3) motivations for, associations with, and consequences of use. This is likely to be because of a number of social, political, and economic factors. Research will be necessary to determine more specifically the reasons for these differences. Meanwhile, this information can be used to our advantage in developing health promotion materials and campaigns for young people. For instance, because rap music most frequently contains references to marijuana use, this population may need targeted education regarding the dangers of marijuana use. A rap artist might be the ideal spokesperson for this public health message.
Our study was limited in that it focused on 1 year of popular music. However, we had sufficient power to detect differences of interest with the available data. Still, it will be important to continue to follow popular music content longitudinally using rigorous methods. In addition, this study did not assess the effect of popular music messages on young people; rather, it focused on analysis of the content. Future studies should address more carefully the effects of these messages on their audiences, in terms of knowledge, attitudes, and practices. Also, the coding of elements, such as motivations, associations, and consequences, can be subjective. It is for this reason that we used a detailed and comprehensive coding method in which (1) both initial coders coded all songs, rather than overlapping only somewhat; (2) 2 confirmatory coders scrutinized each and every discrepancy, blinded to previous ratings and to each other; and (3) a committee involving coders and the principal investigator resolved any remaining discrepancies. Finally, we did not examine the visual elements of these songs, such as their music videos, CD covers, or Web sites. Although these are interesting areas to explore in future studies, the purpose of this study was to focus on the song lyrics.
In summary, children and adolescents are heavily exposed to substance use in popular music, and this exposure varies widely by genre. Substance use in music is frequently motivated by peer acceptance and sex, and it has highly positive associations and consequences. Research is needed to (1) determine the potency of exposure to substance use messages in music in adolescents and (2) determine the effects of various types of substance abuse messages, such as those with certain associations and consequences. If future studies determine an impact, we will need to consider the potential for media literacy and other educational interventions to reduce the impact of these messages on adolescent substance use.