Whether you consider it country music getting more cool, or country music losing its historic hold on the squeaky-clean, family-friendly spot on the radio dial, popular country music songs now carry more references to drugs than the lyrics of any other major American genre, even more than rap, and even more than the drug-crazed EDM world.
This is according to a study conducted by Addictions.com using a song meanings API, or “application program interface” to analyze the meanings and lyrical content of songs. According to the study, country songs include drug references 1.6% of the time, which is more than jazz, pop, electronic, rock, other, folk and rap. Marijuana is the most common drug referenced, but not the only one. 30% of the drug references were for marijuana. Cocaine followed with 22 percent, with smaller doses of acid, pills, methamphetamines, heroin and ecstasy also getting mentions.
This study turns the idea that country music is the most values-based major American genre on its head. It also exonerates rap as the genre with the least family-friendly lyrics since it came in last in the study for the frequency of drug references.
“If you ask the casual music fan which genres are more likely to bring up recreational substance use, hip-hop or contemporary electronic music are likely to be the most common answers,” the study says. “But according to our research, both of these styles are relatively tame. Out of eight categories, country leads the way … Hip-hop actually falls in last place at less than 1.3 percent behind folk, challenging the assumption that all rappers are lyrical drug peddlers.”
Though the study doesn’t directly link drug references with drug use, it does fly against the conventional wisdom that country music is a safe place for all listeners. The study is offered to be helpful information for families, and for recovering addicts who may be looking to avoid drug references in music.
“I think there was a huge drug culture in the 90’s that was blossoming into rap music that simply isn’t as big as it once was,” says Logan Freedman, who is a data scientist at Addictions.com. “It’s really amazing, I think because marijuana has become more normalized in our culture, a lot of country artists are signing about it more often than ever.”
This also leads to the question if marijuana as a “drug” should be as alarming as cocaine, for example. State referendums across the country have made marijuana legal in some places, legal for medicinal purposes in others, and decriminalized its use in many more. Also, a song could reference drugs, but could do so in a cautionary tale as opposed to condoning its use, i.e. numerous songs from Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and others from country music’s past.
Nonetheless, the study is another sign that the values of country music are shifting, and not necessarily in a positive direction for all listeners.