Arts, Music, Column

Second Hand High: Reveling in the Irony of Songs about Drugs

I was standing in the light pouring in from the open window of the first floor guest room of my aunt’s beach house in Grover Beach, Calif., while cleansing my Spotify “Beach” playlist of stale songs from summer days passed when I came across Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” I gave into the natural human urge to sing along to the opening doo-doo-doos before glancing down at the nifty “Behind The Lyrics” pop-up that everyone ignores yet some intern is still working tirelessly to create for every somewhat popular song on the streaming service. (Although before I bash the app feature any further, I will give it due credit for informing me that The Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach did the guitar solo on Cage The Elephant’s “Mess Around.”)

“Third Eye Blind’s ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ sounds like a fun bop, but this iconic ’90s hit is about crystal meth addiction,” the screen read.

This was an eye-opening realization for me. Having sung along to the song on road trips my family reluctantly (and probably regrettably) allowed me to aux, I was surprised my mother and I unknowingly bopped to an unapologetic song about meth. Now entranced by the once annoying pop-up, I read the lyrics while the upbeat song played. Third Eye Blind bluntly shares its message with the line “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break.” This made me wonder how many other happy-go-lucky beats were deceiving me into singing about drugs.

There are many songs that are open about recreational drug use: Eric Clapton’s head rush from a different type of rock in “Cocaine,” Tom Petty’s relaxed high on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and Lana Del Rey’s lethargic shot of “Heroin” are a few of my favorite drug dealing anthems. But there is something remarkably refreshing about getting a second-hand high from songs a little more secretive about their bad habits.

As a devoted fan of The 1975, I knew the band’s lighthearted radio hit “Chocolate” used the sugary substance as a euphemism for marijuana. It was fun to be in on the secret when the song innocently played in ice cream shops, retail stores, and other public places full of parents who lie to their kids about their pot-smoking youth. The band stepped beyond the gateway drug for its sophomore album with “UGH!,” a song in which front man Matty Healy chases a quickly dissipating cocaine high to the sound of a poppy dance tune. The songs are admittedly much more covert about their drug references than “Semi-Charmed Life.”

Let’s not forget The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” an uplifting smash hit that stimulates you a little more than your average pick-me-up. The lyrics imply cocaine use, as the drug causes a numbing sensation when taken. The pop sensation refers to the song’s ironic success in his 2016 song “Reminder”: “I just won a new award for a kids’ show / Talking about her face coming off a bag of blow / I’m like goddamn bitch I am not a Teen Choice.”

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are known for their willingness to discuss the band members’ incessant drug abuse. In 1991, radio stations across the nation promoted drug deals obscured by “Under The Bridge.” Listeners wouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the song is about Kiedis mourning former Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak’s untimely fatal heroin overdose given the sound of the heavenly choir and winding bassline. In Anthony Kiedis’s autobiography Scar Tissue (a book I highly recommend if you are looking to vicariously experience the rush of the rock star lifestyle without periodic stints in rehab), the lead singer discusses his longtime addiction to crack and heroin and the even longer road to recovery. What’s probably more shocking is that the band’s Stadium Arcadium hit “Snow (Hey Oh)” isn’t about cocaine, but rather starting anew with sobriety.

Of course The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a song about the hippie-favorite hallucinogenic LSD, made clear by the song’s tell-tale initials. The song takes a trip through an alternate universe filled with images one might dream up while under the influence of the world-altering drug: “Cellophane flowers” grow to unprecedented heights around the “newspaper taxis” that transport the users during their quest to find the “girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”

While some artists do openly write lines of lyrics about lines of coke, others are more tight-lipped about their pill-popping antics. Knowing and understanding the subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos encrypted in a song’s lyrics can either help straight-laced citizens avoid toked-up tunes, or make the listening experience a lot more enjoyable. The dopey double entendres of our favorite artists sometimes act as little inside jokes, a mockery of the modern consumer’s mindless music taste.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor 

March 14, 2018