People who study the media have found that a lot of what teens see and hear in movies, TV, and music includes messages about substance use. Between 30 percent and 44 percent of the songs in some kinds of music—rap, hip-hop, blues, and country—refer to using alcohol and drugs. And although video games, movies, music, etc., don’t shoulder all the blame for any one person’s behavior, they may impact teens’ choices.
Take, for example, rock. It’s always had the reputation of being a bad influence on teens. And the heaviest of rock, heavy metal? That’s considered the worst! And Black Sabbath, heavy metal pioneers—they must be the worst of the worst! Right?
Well, not so fast jumping to conclusions. A recent study by NIDA’s Dr. Kevin Conway, an expert in drug use trends and patterns, with Dr. Patrick McGrain of the Department of Criminal Justice at Gwynedd Mercy University, found that Black Sabbath’s songs don’t necessarily fit the “pro-drug” stereotype.
“Earlier research suggested that rock and roll music glorified drug use,” said Dr. Conway, “but my own listening to Black Sabbath's songs suggested a more complicated story...To our surprise, the songs tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug use and the horrors of drug addiction.”
A sobering shift
Diving deep into Black Sabbath’s music, the researchers listened to every song the band recorded in the studio—that’s 156 songs between 1970 and 2013—while also reading the lyrics and coding them according to theme or topic. They found that the songs had four main themes: doom and gloom, love and loss, explicit references to substance use, and implied (suggested but not explicitly stated) references to substance use.
The first surprise from the study is that just 13 percent of Black Sabbath’s songs mentioned substance use (either explicit/straightforward or implied). An even bigger surprise: the songs that referred to substances were overwhelmingly (60 percent) negative on the subject, and they grew more negative over time.
While slightly more of the substance-use songs on the first four Black Sabbath albums were positive rather than negative in tone, nine of the last 10 Black Sabbath songs on the subject were negative. This shift mirrors the experience of most people who become addicted to drugs: from initially chasing a high to, ultimately, the misery of having their life ruled (and possibly ruined) by a drug.
It might not be a coincidence, then, that 95 percent of Black Sabbath’s songs about drug use were written by bassist Geezer Butler and sung by Ozzy Osbourne. Both of them have talked about their personal struggles with drug addiction.
Rock and regret
Many of Black Sabbath’s lyrics describe how repeatedly using drugs can hijack a person’s free will, take over their life, and make them miserable in all kinds of ways.
For example, the song “Killing Yourself to Live” describes a person who continues to use drugs (“Smoke it, get high”) despite terrible consequences: losing their dignity ("Well, people look and people stare / Well, I don't think that I even care"), having a mental breakdown (“I don’t know if I’m up or down / whether black is white or blue is brown / The colors of my life are all different somehow”), and constantly suffering ("You’re only killing yourself to live… / You’ll end up paying ’til your dying day”).
The song “Methademic” warns of the consequences of using methamphetamine:
Hallucinating in a chemical hell ain’t my idea of having fun
Synthetic overload, you’re under its spell
Your super nightmare’s just begun.
And “Shock Wave” describes a drug user who discovers that heroin has taken control of his life:
There’s no reason for you to run
You can’t escape the fate of the chosen one
Black moon rising in a blood red sky
This time you realize that you’re gonna die.
These lyrics are heavy, for sure (and not the kind of “heavy” that “heavy metal” usually refers to). But they capture the raw horror of addiction.
This band’s music and the research on it challenge the belief that being “counter-cultural” means glorifying drug and alcohol use. At least for Black Sabbath, the myth of awesome non-stop partying wasn’t as interesting or honest as the reality of drug use and addiction—and that’s the story they told in their songs.