Addictions are shifting, shadowy things. They can start small and swell into something monstrous, or remain tiny and well-hidden for years and years. The internal conflict of the addict, not to mention the social stigma and shame attached to the label, can be as strong and overwhelming as the addiction itself, so it’s no wonder it’s become such a frequently recurring theme in popular music.
From video games, to food. From heroin, to pain pills. From nail-biting, to shopping, and even obsessions with addicts themselves. It seems that addictions are as varied as the people who succumb to them, and that for every one of them, there is a songwriter who feels their pain and is able to put a melody to it.
To delve further into addiction as pop music subject matter, Music Feeds has teamed up with SBS 2’s The Feed, who are taking the week to explore the unusually fascinating, sometimes bizarre, often sad world of addiction. To get the full story, tune into SBS 2 from 7:30pm Monday – Thursday.
Regurgitator – Black Bugs
Key lyric: “Stared at the TV too long now and I’m not the same”
Brisbane outfit Regurgitator arguably hit their peak with 1997’s Unit, an unsettlingly predictive love letter to an imminent generation who won’t know what it’s like not to be within three feet of a screen at all hours of the day.
Never ones to shy away from the ever-looming depravity of the human condition, Black Bugs is the group’s ode to computer game addiction, with the Gurg’s effects-riddled, near-lifeless vocals drawling lines like, “I’ve got to remind myself that it’s just a game / It’s getting harder and harder to get to sleep at night / I think I’ll let them shoot me so that I can die”.
Dresden Dolls – Bad Habit
Key lyric: “I cherish the revolting thought / That even if I quit / There’s not a chance in hell I’d stop”
The lyrics to Bad Habit, read literally, could be about self-mutilation and cutting, but in reality the song is much less dark — it’s actually about lead singer Amanda Palmer‘s nail-biting habit. Palmer addressed the issue on the Dresden Dolls website in response to a letter from an irate fan who claimed the song encouraged young girls to attack their bodies.
“There are plenty of people out there, many of them children, practicing real self harm that may actually find comfort in an artist expressing the anguish that accompanies any sort of self-destructive bad habit, and knowing that I may provide that comfort means that I sleep very well at night indeed,” Palmer wrote.
Action Bronson – Ronnie Coleman
Key lyric: “Every five minutes look in the fridges as if magic happened”
The story goes that Action Bronson first got into the rap game in order to bankroll culinary studies in Tuscany. It’s readily apparent from even a cursory glance at his lyrics that the man does not let food leave his brain, making references to Montauk baby clams and seared Ahi tuna.
On Ronnie Coleman, the normally braggadocious Flushing rapper finally laments that what he loves most in the world is liable to take his life one day: “Sneak a cookie, rip the bag, and fix the plastic wrapping / I don’t want no-one to know that I took it / Cause I’m an over-eater“.
Wilco – Sunloathe
Key lyric: “I kill my memory with a cheap disease”
Jeff Tweedy, lead singer of alt-country greats Wilco, became addicted to pain medication he was prescribed to alleviate his migraines, and this song explores his attachment to the comfort of self-pity many addicts face. Tweedy told Rolling Stone, “A lot of Sunloathe is mocking the internally manufactured abyss of addiction. It’s a common thread in a lot of my songs – being angry at my own self-pity, or self-pity in general, in the face of the real suffering in the world.”
Paloma Faith – Agony
Key lyric: “This is agony / But it’s still a thrill for me / This could end in tragedy”
Agony recounts Paloma Faith’s real-life experiences being romantically involved with a drug addict, and actually explores how attractive an addict can seem. “He said his problems were in the past,” she reportedly told Q magazine, “They weren’t. I’ve seen addiction, how it devastates families. But addicts are also addictive. They can be exciting in a way teetotallers just aren’t. I have an affinity with addicts having had experience of them.”
Alanis Morissette – Numb
Key lyric: “Here comes the feeling / I run from the feeling and reach for the drug”
Here an unusually gloomy Alanis Morissette examines escapism. “There are many ways to get away from feeling things, and usually they’re addictive,” she told Parade magazine. “Numb is about the reasons behind my reaching for the drug of choice, whether it’s a substance or a person. I’m curious about the bravery [it takes] to heal and grow.”
Third Eye Blind – Semi-Charmed Life
Key lyric: “I want something else / To get me through this / Semi-charmed kind of life”
Addicts often hide their addictions to avoid the shame and stigma attached to their behaviour. Meta before the term existed, the lyrics to Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life paint a picture of a descent into crystal meth addiction, but hides the meaning of the song behind a facade of pop culture references and one of the most catchy, upbeat guitar pop choruses of the 90s.
The song’s popular success may have been helped by its heavy editing for radio to avoid drug and sex references.
Roxy Music – Love Is The Drug
Key lyric: “Aggravated, spare for days / I troll downtown the red light place / Jump up bubble up, what’s in store?”
“Love is the drug I need to score, love is the drug for me”, sings Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. But is it really love he’s after? Considering Ferry “troll[s] downtown the red light place”, and later sings about a boozy pick-up in a singles bar, it sounds like he’s battling with sex addiction rather than relying on an emotional attachment.
The Velvet Underground – Heroin
Key lyric: “It makes me feel like I’m a man / When I put a spike into my vein / And I’ll tell ya, things aren’t quite the same / When I’m rushing on my run”
There are many, many, MANY songs about heroin addiction in the popular music pantheon, but none have tackled the topic quite so directly as The Velvet Underground’s Heroin (the clue is in the title). Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under The Bridge crept up on you until the song’s musical bridge laid it all out in open metaphor, Iggy Pop hid his habit behind a bouncing beat on Lust For Life.
But when you hear renowned addict Lou Reed speak-sing “Because a mainer to my vein, leads to a center in my head and then I’m better off than dead”, as the beat surges and the guitars twang faster, jagged and off key — all the attraction and anguish of his habit is revealed literally, poetically, and emotionally.
Three Days Grace – Pain
Key lyric: “Pain, I can’t get enough / Pain, I like it rough / ‘Cause I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all”
Canadian rockers Three Days Grace aren’t known for their upbeat anthems, but Pain has to be one of their all-time downer moments. Vocalist Adam Grontier sings “Pain, I can’t get enough…’Cause I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all” because he’s “sick of feeling numb”.
It’s the flip side of Morisette’s Numb — Alanis wants to dull the senses, and Three Days Grace will go to extremes to feel anything at all.
Pulp – This Is Hardcore
Key lyric: “You can’t be a spectator / Oh no / You got to take these dreams & make them whole”
From the band’s penultimate album of the same name, This Is Hardcore puts ever-eloquent frontman Jarvis Cocker to work on a topic so taboo that only he could handle it with the kind of subtlety and sardonic insight required to produce lines like, “I’ve seen the storyline played out so many times before / Oh that goes in there / Then that goes in there”.
“I ended up watching a lot of porn – hah! – on tour. If you get back to the hotel and you’ve got nothing to do, you put the adult channel on and have a look… It’s the way that people get used up in it,” Cocker told Select Magazine in 1998.
The Animals – The House Of The Rising Sun
Key line: “It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy / And God I know I’m one”
The authorship of The House of the Rising Sun has been debated by music scholars for decades, though arguably the most famous recording of this morose folk/blues traditional is by The Animals, on which singer Eric Burdon imbues each pitiful line with a heartstring-tearing soulfulness worthy of a song that deals with a crippling gambling addiction that, like many bad habits, gets passed from father to son.
We don’t know who first penned this classic tune either, but man were they in a dark place when they did it.
The Pussycat Dolls – Bad Girl
Key lyric: “Shopaholic is what they call ’em / My addiction, my prescription”
Buying shoes and handbags is nice. It’s less nice when you’re doing it compulsively to hide some underlying psychological trauma: “Gimme shoes and give me bags / How much you want, I need ’em bad”.
This cut from The Pussycat Dolls (and featured on the Confessions Of A Shopaholic soundtrack) becomes oddly self-referential when you look past the defiant swagger and view it for what it is — the I-can-quit-when-I-wanna-but-I-don’t-wanna arrogance of someone steeped in addiction. Possibly.
It’s Addiction Week on The Feed. Tune into SBS 2 from 7:30pm Monday – Thursday to see more.