Hey kids, try Rock’n’roll 0.0

4 minute read

Take the booze out of music for the sake of the children? Seems legit.

“I got a bad liver and a broken heart, and I drunk me a river since you tore me apart. I don’t have a drinking problem, ’cept when I can’t get a drink …”  

That’s from Bad Liver and a Broken Heart from 1976 by the legendary (and now decades-dry) Tom Waits, whose shambling, dishevelled genius held a particular attraction for the Back Page from the age of about 16.  

Who can say whether Waits’ drunken piano, gravel voice and glorious carousel of down-and-out characters had an influence on subsequent life choices, or whether they appealed to what was already inside that teenage brain?  

This is a question that researchers from Latrobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy Research dodged in their recent study on whether alcohol references in popular music influence young listeners’ drinking.  

In this two-part systematic review they set out first to determine the prevalence of such references in music, then what effect they have on behaviour.  

“Alcohol references in music may serve to attract young people listening to the music, since alcohol often symbolises celebration, glamour, wealth, and luxurious lifestyles,” they write.  

These people definitely aren’t listening to Tom Waits.  

Their first trawl netted 23 studies of more than 12,000 songs recorded between 1979 and 2020, which found roughly a quarter contained some reference to alcohol in lyrics, music video or both (the range was a rather wide 8% to 45%).  

For their second question the researchers turned up only three studies that fit the bill. One measured receptivity (liking and owning music with boozy allusions) and ability to correctly identify one alcohol brand (a variable previously linked to increased drinking) in 15-23-year-olds and found a positive association.  

The second got three bars to play alcohol-laced and alcohol-free music over 45 nights and measured the takings, and found a significant difference of 191 and 182 euros on average per night respectively. Which mostly tells you the bars weren’t in Sydney, where 191 euros would now buy three office workers a couple of rounds of Carlton Draught.  

The third used “self-reports among Latino and European American students [and] found that increased exposure to music containing substance-use references (including alcohol and cigarette) was associated with a higher likelihood of having pro-substance-use beliefs and substance use including alcohol and cigarette use”. 

“These findings highlight the potential impact of music on shaping behaviors and attitudes toward alcohol consumption,” say the Latrobe authors. 

But the first and third study seem to leave open the question of reverse causality – or that listening and drinking behaviour might be two expressions of the same thing, like wanting to look cool or to project a certain identity.  

While they say more research is need “before interventions or public health initiatives are recommended”, they conclude with the chilling sentence: “To reduce alcohol-related content in music, it is essential to take evidence based preventive measures.” 

What’s that – to reduce alcohol-related content in music

If they’d said “to reduce young people’s exposure to alcohol-infused songs” that would already be public health at its ridiculous and interfering best.  

But are they … seriously … proposing that artists shouldn’t write and sing about booze?  

How to be polite about this?  

Let’s borrow a concept from Stephen Jay Gould and say that art and public health seem to us to be non-overlapping magisteria. Non-overlapping like Tasmania and Iceland, or Melbourne and the Sea of Tranquility.  

Luckily, young people are already drinking less without this kind of helpful intervention.  

Next week: How Nick Cave made me a smoker.  

Send preposterous public health propositions to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au 

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