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Music / Drugs

High, Famous, and Broken: The Impact of Drugs on American Music

It is no mystery that the music industry dominates popular culture. This is not a new concept- music defines and influences whole decades and eras. Music speaks to emotions we couldn’t otherwise decipher, and triggers particular memories and sentiments; it becomes a conduit for nostalgia.

While nostalgia can provoke many good sentiments, it also becomes a breeding ground for unnecessary glorifications. The danger in this trend is the formation of an altered truth, one in which important aspects of culture are overlooked. Over time, the music industry has become a primary perpetrator of this cultural disregard.

Take the 1970s- a time idolized for its freewill, activism, and Rock and Roll. As music has done and continues to do, Rock and Roll became the focal point of American society, the defining characteristic of an entire decade. It set the tone for how people led their lives.

What is often forgotten about the decade of Rock and Roll lies hand in hand with the epidemic plaguing today’s music industry: opioids. Opioid abuse and rampant drug use constituted a large portion of Rock and Roll culture. Highly influential artists such as Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Jimi Hendrix and John Morrison were killed from drug overdose. To parallel these accounts, a conglomerate of young artists, such as Mac Miller and Avicii, have died due to the same addictive processes. This prompts the question: why have the deadly behaviors of the music industry failed to be corrected?

There are many paths one can follow in search of an answer to this question. The root of the issue, however, has always been found within stardom. “Famous” is a renowned adjectiveit implies a certain level of statue and prestige. Those who are famous become a beacon of attainment for many youth, idolized for their productions, but more importantly, their actions. This expansive realm of influence bears a heavy burden on one’s psychological stability.

Fame demands many things. It asks for a person to transform themself into another being, to become a facade of perfection. Musicians in the limelight are the victims of constant critique, particularly in the era of social media, where there is little value in privacy. The media reverts focus from an artist’s work to other aspects of their personal life, how they project their image publically, etc. changes the culture from one that values art, to one that breeds success from the illustration of perfection.

The external pressures on artists from the media and various fan-bases, however, do not stand alone. The culture promoted by the media is only intensified by management practices in the music industry. We live in an impatient society, where value is placed on rapid production. Much of today’s music reflects that, with quick turnaround times and radio stations that do little more than play the top charts. Managers are there to support these movements- they create the identity and the product that consumers want, no matter how contrived it may be. They keep the whole show afloat.

All movements and changes that contribute to the success of an artist are devoid of a human touch- they serve a monetary purpose. A recent article from Forbes indicated that in 2017, the music industry brought in a revenue upwards of $15 billion. As streaming outlets increase, the platform for music access grows twofold. The value of music escalates, while artists continue to be disposable elements of the industry.

So how do these characteristics, derived from the attitudes of media and society, harm an artist? They play a damaging mental game. All of the aforementioned components of fame and production are psychological pollutants- they further promote the notion of the artist as dispensable. Mental fragility is a conduit for substance abuse. We promote the romanticization of a ‘tortured artist’, we buy into the falsified identities created by managers, we listen and we endorse. And yet, each time an artist dies from overdose, we simply mourn and move on. How does that make us, as listeners and consumers, any better than the industry’s power mongers?

Now, for decades, opioid abuse has continued to be accepted as a defining factor of what constitutes being an artist. The deadly behaviors of the music industry have, indeed, failed to be corrected. Musicians are the product of a flawed system, and their reliance on forms of substance abuse for self medication is merely the byproduct of a much greater psychological burden. Regardless of the path history has taken, the impact drugs have on musicians can be reversed- all we need to do is bring humanity back to the music industry.