The Weeknd, Lana Del Rey & The Rise of Songs About Drugs on Pop Radio

The Weeknd Lana Del Rey
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How are songs like "Can't Feel My Face" and "High By The Beach" invading the pop world alongside family-friendly fare?

The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” officially became the biggest song in the country this week, sliding up one spot to No. 1 and giving the 25-year-old his first Hot 100 chart-topper. It’s a strange sensation, seeing the R&B singer’s mountain of dreadlocks positioned atop the Hot 100 and hearing his anxious falsetto every 15 minutes on Top 40 radio, and not just because of how unlikely the Weeknd’s rise from obscure mixtape auteur to mainstream star has been. It’s because, in spite of a gigantic hook and exuberant bass line, the top song in America is a pretty big bummer of an addiction anthem.

“And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” goes the song’s opening line. The Weeknd then spends the rest of the song personifying drug dependency, most likely to cocaine, as a dangerous romantic partner.

“Can’t Feel My Face” thematically fits in with the rest of the Weeknd’s catalog, mostly composed of gorgeously sung songs about getting high and slowly falling apart. He was popping pills and getting codeine visions on his 2011 debut mixtape House of Balloons, and on “Kiss Land,” the first single from his 2013 major-label debut of the same name, he admitted, “Goddamn I’m high/My doctor told me to stop/And he gave me something to pop/And I mix it up with some Adderall’s and I wait to get to the top.” The lyrical obsession continues on “Can’t Feel My Face,” but this time, the Weeknd is working with pop mastermind Max Martin and explicitly channeling Michael Jackson; the result is an irresistible slice of radio fodder, a song that’s difficult not to sing along to and is likely already popping up at high school dances and wedding receptions.

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Loads of modern hip-hop hits linger on hard drug use and addiction; in the past year, for instance, OT Genasis and Fetty Wap have respectively turned “I’m in love with the coco” and “And I get high with my baby” into wide-reaching chants. In the world of pop music, which is often delivered by more family-friendly artists and aimed at younger audiences, the drug anthem is something of an anomaly, however. Occasionally an undeniable song like Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” or Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” will breach the mainstream, and winking references — like Miley Cyrus’ molly lyric on “We Can’t Stop” — sometimes dot pop songs that concentrate on other topics.

But the rise of “Can’t Feel My Face” underlines an interesting trend: the population of pop songs that don’t just passively nod to drug use, but make it their lyrical focal point. In some ways, popular music hasn’t been this high since the late 60’s, when the Beatles, the Doors and Janis Joplin were turning their trips into hit records.

The success of “Can’t Feel My Face” follows Tove Lo’s perilously lonely smash “Habits (Stay High),” Sia’s slurred breakout “Chandelier” and Tiësto’s beyond-faded club staple “Wasted” (featuring Matthew Koma), all of which were Hot 100 hits in the past year. The chorus to Halsey’s latest single, “New Americana,” begins, “We are the new Americana/High on legal marijuana”; the track is up to No. 26 on the Alternative Songs chart and is catchy enough to hit pop radio. And on Monday (Aug. 10), the same day that the Weeknd officially crowned the Hot 100, Lana Del Rey released a new single titled “High By The Beach,” about… well, you can probably guess. The song’s dreamy chorus is Del Rey’s most accessible hook to date, and with “High By The Beach” posted atop the iTunes Songs Chart as of this writing, one can reasonably expect a strong Hot 100 debut and subsequent radio push.

Part of the reason these songs are taking off at Top 40 radio is because their drug references remain slyly packaged; it’s easy to listen to “Can’t Feel My Face” and miss the lyrical messaging since no specific narcotic is presented in neon lights. “Obviously we wouldn’t play anything that’s profane or blatantly offensive,” says Erik Bradley, assistant program director and music director of WBBM-FM in Chicago. “I think the subtlety has made those songs a little less alarming. … It’s all about the play-on-words, and the melodies are hypnotic. It’s not my job to sit there and say, ‘I can’t play this song.’ It’s such a hit that I have to play it.”

Bradley also highlights the obvious: the “moral compass” of the country has changed. Support for the legalization of marijuana in America, which Halsey shouts out on “New Americana,” has never been higher, according to a recent CBS poll. While an explicitly pro-cocaine pop song probably couldn’t get much traction on Top 40 in 2015, songs like “Habits (Stay High),” which discuss “getting high” without naming a specific drug, don’t provoke a negative reaction.

“Truthfully, we don’t,” says Bradley, when asked if WBBM receives any concerned calls from parents about these songs. “I haven’t heard anybody complaining about these songs.”

The most important detail within most of these hit singles, however, is that they don’t actually glamorize drug use in the way that, say, “Trap Queen” does. “Can’t Feel My Face” may be as big of a hit and as uptempo of a song as Fetty Wap’s star-making single, but the Weeknd’s character in "Can’t Feel My Face" is not extolling his drug use, but rather confessing about “all the misery” his addiction has caused. We know that the Weeknd personally went through hell to get to pop stardom: a recent NY Times profile on the singer (real name: Abel Tesfaye) describes how he and his friends would “get high on whatever was around — MDMA, Xanax, cocaine, mushrooms, ketamine” as teenagers, and how Tesfaye would feel depressed whenever he wasn’t high. The Weeknd has spent his career drawing from his sordid backstory, and although the music he’s now making is catchier than ever, he’s still as haunted as when he was nowhere near a festival headliner.

Similarly, Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” reached the Top 5 of the Hot 100 chart not by encouraging its listeners to “stay high,” but by sharing a tale of personal loss, and how Lo had to “spend my days locked in a haze” in order to move on. Sia’s “Chandelier” is a song about using alcohol to ineffectively numb anxiety, and eventually spinning out of control. On Tiësto’s “Wasted,” the vocalist Koma eventually realizes that his substance-fueled romance will never last, and the reason Del Rey is getting “high by the beach” is because she is trying to move on from a fractured relationship. These artists are not not make drug use seem “rock-and-roll,” but full of doubt and despair; the Weeknd and his hopped-up brethren are not in the business of recording the “Mother’s Little Helper” for a new generation.

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And that’s likely the reason why these songs are consistently earning Top 40 license and not getting calls from angry parents worried that their kids will turn into junkies by singing “I gotta stay high all the time." As much as these radio hits are about drug use, they more clearly capture the feelings of emptiness that go along with the lows. Someone who’s never struggled with cocaine addiction can still understand the toxic relationship at the heart of “Can’t Feel My Face,” just like a listener who’s ever needed an escape from missing an ex can easily relate to Lana Del Rey’s “High By The Beach” without getting high by the beach. Top 40 radio is still an oppressively positive place — currently, we’re being fed “This is my fight song!,” “Nobody can drag me down!” and “We’re cool for the summer!,” among other declarations — and people understandably want a solid downer sometimes to balance out the thematically uptempo fare.

With “Can’t Feel My Face” taking addiction to the top of the Hot 100, the question that remains is, how far can this trend go? Songs like the Weeknd’s breakout hit keep the subject matter hidden just enough, but that subtlety may disappear over time. Soon, the metaphors and euphemisms in songs like “Can’t Feel My Face” could lead to more direct accounts of drug use appearing on your favorite radio station.  

“Artists are always going to try and push the envelope a little further,” says Bradley, “and I would guess that we’re going to be hearing more and more of that stuff.”