Popular Music Influences Popular Behavior

Popular culture can be a powerful influence on our behavior. To dig into the potential influence that pop music can have on alcohol use, Counseling@Northwestern, Northwestern University’s online master’s in counseling program, looked at a decade of Billboard 100 music data to analyze the frequency of alcohol-related terms within the lyrics of the nations’ favorite songs.

To gather their findings, they developed a list of frequently used key terms related to alcohol use, including top alcohol brands, terms meaning types of alcohol, and terms that mean being under the influence of alcohol. The analysis found that the most frequently used term in alcohol-related songs were variations of the word “drink” or alcoholic brand promotions. The data also led to some interesting insights related to the distribution of alcohol-related terms across artists and genres.

Although the Rap and Punk genres may get a disproportionate concern for having a negative influence on substance use, pop music took the prize for the highest total number of alcohol-related songs. Pop was also the genre with the highest representation of songs in the Billboard 100 data. Hip-hop, however, took the cake when it came to the highest percentage of songs, followed closely by country music.

Who were the most common culprits with alcohol-related music in the Billboard 100? The list includes some of the biggest house-hold names: Drake, Flo Rida, Rihanna, Lil Wayne, and Luke Bryan. That being said, 8 popular artists, including Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris, and Alicia Keys, didn’t include a single mention of alcohol in their most popular songs. It’s important to note that although these artists didn’t include alcohol mentions, this analysis did not look for mentions of other substances.

According to Eric Beeson, core faculty member from Northwestern University’s online master’s in counseling program, it’s not as simple as cause and effect. Music may not necessarily cause people to drink, but it can influence and can foster an interest in substances. Beeson says that it’s about “what drives this individual in their substance use.” For example, he suggests that if someone is motivated by, “esteem, power, money, respect, and sexual relationships,” and those things are then mentioned in connection to using drugs or alcohol in pop music, then those lyrics could encourage substance use.

Does this mean that those struggling with addiction or concerned about negative influences should stop listening to popular music? Not necessarily. In the end, less than 23% of the songs in the Billboard 100 data included alcohol-related key terms. The level of influence of use from those songs is still unknown, but concerned parents of teens who may be easily influenced may want to have a conversation about positive role models within the music industry who not only avoid substance related lyrics but also speak up and advocate for healthy habits.


The analysis began with a list of 50 key terms that mean under the influence of alcohol, suggest alcohol use, or refer to alcohol directly. Once a key term was identified in a song, researchers took a closer look at the lyrics to identify additional key terms that could be used in relation to alcohol within the context of the song’s meaning.

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Colleen O'Day

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  • Colleen O'Day is a Digital PR Manager at 2U, based out of the Washington DC area. Colleen supports community outreach for 2U Inc.'s social work, mental health, and speech pathology programs. She is interested in writing and reading about issues related to substance use, social issues, and human behavior. Say hi on Twitter @ColleenMODay!

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