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YOLO link to alcohol mentions in pop songs, research finds

Media release

More than one in five Australian top 20 songs from 2003 to 2015 included references to alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs, new research led by Curtin University has found.

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The research, published in Drug and Alcohol Review today, examined 508 songs that featured in the top 20 over that timeframe and found almost all references to alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs were framed in a positive light.

References to alcohol in popular Australian songs peaked in 2010, when almost half of the top 20 songs mentioned alcohol and/or illicit drugs, before declining steeply in the following years, which was linked to the ‘YOLO’, or You Only Live Once, phenomenon.

Lead author Professor Simone Pettigrew, from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University, said young people were heavily exposed to popular music with estimates of about three hours per day among 15 to 18-year-olds.

“Music is one form of popular culture that plays an important role in defining and reinforcing society’s expectations of substance use, including what is and isn’t considered appropriate,” Professor Pettigrew said.

“This research suggests that popular music across a range of mediums, including radio, music video television programs and YouTube, is exposing young people to large amounts of substance-related content. This finding is in line with estimates that American adolescents are exposed to about 34 alcohol mentions in popular music every day.

“Given the ‘YOLO’ phenomenon peaked in 2011 before decreasing in popularity, this could be a potential contributing factor to the reduction in mentions of partying in song lyrics since that time.”

Professor Pettigrew said the research recommended monitoring music lyrics as a way of helping researchers gain a clearer insight into substance use among youths.

“The link between the reduction in the consumption of alcohol among youths and the references to alcohol in top 20 songs may indicate popular music closely mirrors actual consumption rates,” Professor Pettigrew said.

“This relationship indicates it may be worth further exploring the possibility that changes in popular music may be a useful barometer for trends in youth substance use.”

Just under 20 per cent of the popular songs examined mentioned alcohol alone, which was in line with similar research in the US and UK that recorded results of 19 to 23 per cent from 2001 to 2013.