Psychologists have documented a striking increase in references to alcohol and heavy drinking in the lyrics of UK chart music. They warn this could mean that attempts to control the direct advertising of alcohol to young people will be in vain, as pop music is effectively spreading a positive message on the drinks companies’ behalf.
Katherine Hardcastle and her colleagues analysed all songs (611 in total) that reached a top 10 UK chart position in the years 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. The proportion of songs that referenced alcohol in their lyrics was 5.8, 2.1, 8.1 and 18.5 per cent, respectively across these years.
The researchers also looked to see whether the references to alcohol and drinking carried negative, neutral or positive connotations. References were mixed in 1981; all positive in ’91 (though this was the year with the lowest number of alcohol references); more negative and neutral than positive in 2001; while in 2011, the positive and neutral references (22 songs) far outnumbered the negative references (4).
|From Hardcastle et al. 2015|
Why are alcohol references on the increase in the British pop charts? Hardcastle and her co-authors think it has to do with the influence of US acts. Alcohol references are even more prevalent in the USA chart (23.7 per cent of songs in 2008) and songs by US acts in the UK chart contained more alcohol references than songs by British acts. References to booze and drinking were highest in Urban music (R&B, hip-hop and rap) – a genre largely originating in the US. “Today’s urban music scene is dominated by US artists such as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys,” the researcher said, “with many artists from the UK music scene attempting to emulate the sounds and styles of their American counterparts.”
This study cannot answer the question of whether mentions of alcohol (especially positive ones) in pop music encourages more alcohol abuse among young listeners. However, the researchers argue there is reason to think it might. They point to the influence of non-conscious priming (ideas can influence our behaviour without us realising it) and past research showing that people drink more when in a bar that’s playing music with alcohol-related lyrics. Moreover, teenagers’ beliefs about what’s “normal” drinking behaviour will likely be influenced by what they hear from the singers they admire.
“A greater understanding of the impacts of alcohol-related popular music is urgently needed,” the researchers concluded.
Hardcastle, K., Hughes, K., Sharples, O., & Bellis, M. (2015). Trends in alcohol portrayal in popular music: A longitudinal analysis of the UK charts Psychology of Music, 43 (3), 321-332 DOI: 10.1177/0305735613500701
Pop music is getting sadder