References to Substance Use in Popular Music

References to Substance Use in Popular Music

Teens listen to music at any given time of the day. Music blares at them while they drive, where they work a part-time job, and in the soundtracks of movies they watch. Smart phones and music streaming services like Pandora make it easy for teens to hear music anytime, anywhere.

While listening to music can be rejuvenating and add color to everyday life, it can also be influential. Popular music can be used as a tool to broadcast messages about what’s cool and what’s valuable, and sometimes its influence over young minds can cause concern.

A recent study examined how references to substances like alcohol, drugs and tobacco are included in music (Primack, Dalton, Carroll, et al., 2008). The study’s authors wanted to see how pervasive the inclusion of substance use references is in popular music frequently listened to by adolescents.

The research team used information gathered from Billboard magazine’s listing of the most popular song titles played in 2005. The team eliminated lists that would not be relevant for adolescents, such as the list called the "Adult Top 40."

The team used the "Billboard Hot 100," the "Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs" and the "Pop 100," which each included one hundred songs, in addition to several smaller lists, such as "Hot Rap Tracks," which included 25 songs.

Because of the overlap of some songs on multiple lists, the compiling of the lists resulted in a sample containing 279 songs. The songs were measured for inclusion characteristics, types of inclusion and genre. The analysis was designed to determine whether substances and substance use were included in the lyrics.

The researchers coded the genre based on the sub charts and then coded the songs based on their references to substances such as alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. Then the team determined the statistical significance for the frequency of substance use references among separate genres.

The researchers found that of the 279 songs, there were substance use references in 93 of them. Alcohol was the most-frequently mentioned substance, at a rate of 23.7 percent. Marijuana was the next most-frequently mentioned at 13.6 percent. The songs rarely mentioned tobacco use, at a rate of 2.9 percent. The references for the substances varied by genre and showed that rap had the most references to substance use.

The authors note several limitations, including the small sample size and the use of songs that were popular only for the year 2005. However, the authors of the study later used a follow-up study to examine only alcohol references during a two-year time frame. Another limitation is the use of Billboard charts, which reflect all listening, not only the listening preferences of teen audiences.

The findings of the study show that about one-third of the most popular music in the country contains references to substance use, with rap music specifically having the highest concentration of references.

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