Drugs and music. Music and drugs. Sometimes, they go together. At least, in the popular imagination.
If jazz was haunted by heroin, and rock bloomed on acid, and disco darlings preened on cocaine, and ravers got touchy-feely on ecstasy, Lana Del Rey’s recent single, “Love,” sounds like 2 milligrams of Xanax. “Don’t worry, baby,” she sings repeatedly, her voice plunging low, enunciation going slack.
In today’s freaked-out America — where relief-seekers are swallowing opioids and benzodiazepines in record numbers — the connection between our sounds and our substances feels pervasive. When everyone seems to be on drugs, everyone’s music sounds more and more like pill-pop.
One could argue that drugs and pop have always worked more in parallel than in tandem — both attempt to relieve the symptoms of the era. But much of today’s pop music explicitly asks to be heard in a pharmacological context. Brand names keep popping up in our singalongs, particularly in rap music, where Xanax, Percocet and other pharmaceuticals have long been praised for their abilities to numb the agony of existence.
The whole of 21st-century pill-pop has a sound, too. It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges. Out on the dance floor, it’s most evident in the cushiony pulse of tropical house, a softer style that Kygo and other big-time producers have used to mitigate the intensity at various EDM festivals in recent years.
Drugs and pop were permanently stitched into America’s cultural fabric shortly after World War II, back when a menu of new psychotropics was being sent to market around the same time rock ’n’ roll was being born. Both have provided comfort ever since — a parallel that surely isn’t lost on Del Rey, whose inconspicuous lullabies frequently conjure the blurry romance of yesteryear’s American dream.
In rap music, whose artists are more concerned with owning the future, some have aimed to re-create the effects of contemporary psychotropia, while others have struggled to quit cold turkey. On his Grammy Award-winning 2016 album, “Coloring Book,” Chance the Rapper kicked his Xanax habit in rhyme: “Last year, got addicted to Xans/Started forgetting my name and started missing my chance.” On a track from 2014, Schoolboy Q recounted his trials with an entire cabinet of prescription drugs: “Percocets, Adderall, Xanny bars, get codeine involved/Stuck in this body high, can’t shake it off.” Last year, Isaiah Rashad rapped with disdain about the Xanax addiction that nearly cost him his career: “Pop a Xan, baby. … Only pop it ’cause you heard it in a song.”
And then there’s Future, the Atlanta rap visionary who might go down as the most avid proponent of pharmaceutical relief in the history of popular song.
More acutely sobering is the role that prescription drugs have played in the deaths of our most beloved pop stars, especially over the past decade. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince each died with painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs or both coursing through their systems. And because opioids and benzodiazepines are so widely prescribed in tandem, each of these shocking deaths felt strangely familiar.
Regardless of how directly today’s drugs are altering how today’s music gets made, they appear to be having a more significant influence on how that music is being heard. As online streaming services gain traction, they continue to shape our listening habits in ways that feel entirely compatible with a recreational Xanax habit. Streaming is designed to feel cool and undisruptive. It promises fluid, frictionless listening. In that sense, the pill-pop aesthetic and the streaming experience go hand in hand.
We used to want to have our minds blown. Now, we’d prefer to have our minds massaged.