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Soft, smooth and steady: How Xanax turned American music into pill-pop

Eric Petersen for The Washington Post (Eric Petersen for The Washington Post)

Drugs and music. Music and drugs. Sometimes, they go together. At least, in the popular imagination. If jazz was haunted by heroin, and rock bloomed on acid, and disco darlings preened on cocaine, and ravers got touchy-feely on ecstasy, Lana Del Rey's recent single, "Love," sounds like two milligrams of Xanax crushed into dust and set adrift on the Pacific breeze in your mind. "Don't worry, baby," she sings repeatedly during the ballad's gentle send-off, her voice plunging low, enunciation going slack. It's the kind of song that quietly levitates you out of your life, then disappears.

Listening to “Love” on Xanax might feel redundant, but in today’s freaked-out America — where relief-seekers are swallowing opioids and benzodiazepines in record numbers — the connection between our sounds and our substances feels pervasive. When everyone seems to be on drugs, everyone’s music sounds more and more like pill-pop.

One could argue that drugs and pop have always worked more in parallel than in tandem — both attempt to relieve the symptoms of the era. But much of today’s pop music explicitly asks to be heard in a pharmacological context. Brand names keep popping up in our singalongs, particularly in rap music, where Xanax, Percocet and other pharmaceuticals have long been praised for their abilities to numb the agony of existence.

The whole of 21st-century pill-pop has a sound, too. It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isn’t new, but it’s increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges. Out on the dance floor, it’s most evident in the cushiony pulse of tropical house, a softer style that Kygo and other big-time producers have used to mitigate the intensity at various EDM festivals in recent years.

In a way, modern music has always been pill music. Drugs and pop were both permanently stitched into America’s cultural fabric shortly after World War II, back when a menu of new psychotropics was being sent to market around the same time rock-and-roll was being born. Both have provided comfort ever since — a parallel that surely isn’t lost on Del Rey, whose inconspicuous lullabies frequently conjure the blurry romance of yesteryear’s American Dream.

In rap music, whose artists are more concerned with owning the future, some have aimed to re-create the effects of contemporary psychotropia while others have struggled to quit cold turkey. On his Grammy Award-winning 2016 album, “Coloring Book,” Chance the Rapper kicked his Xanax habit in rhyme: “Last year, got addicted to Xans/Started forgetting my name and started missing my chance.” On a track from 2014, Schoolboy Q recounted his trials with an entire cabinet of prescription drugs: “Percocets, Adderall, Xanny bars, get codeine involved/Stuck in this body high, can’t shake it off.” Last year, Isaiah Rashad rapped with disdain about the Xanax addiction that nearly cost him his career: “Pop a Xan, baby. . . . Only pop it ’cause you heard it in a song.”

And then there’s Future, the Atlanta rap visionary who might go down as the most avid proponent of pharmaceutical relief in the history of popular song. He has always presented himself as a renegade, but because the drugs he’s allegedly abusing (Xanax, Percocet, Vicodin, Actavis, etc.), are all entirely accessible to non-renegades, Future’s narco-brags feel more intimate. He brings the frisson of drug danger a little closer — even if he is washing down more pills than the rest of us. “Oh, you done did more drugs than me?” he asks on his most recent album. “You must be hallucinating.” Must be. Even stone sober, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Future’s dizzy-deep songbook.

More acutely sobering is the role that prescription drugs have played in the deaths of our most beloved pop stars, especially over the past decade. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince each died with painkillers, antianxiety drugs or both coursing through their systems. And because opioids and benzodiazepines are so widely prescribed in tandem, each of these shocking deaths felt strangely familiar. The gods of pop music, indestructible in song, died taking the same drugs that everyone takes.

Regardless of how directly today’s drugs are altering how today’s music gets made, they appear to be having a more significant influence on how that music is being heard. As online streaming services gain traction at the center of music culture, they continue to shape our listening habits in ways that feel entirely compatible with a recreational Xanax habit.

Streaming is designed to feel cool and undisruptive. It promises fluid, frictionless listening — an experience that can be entirely predictable, even when you don’t know exactly what’s coming next. Most of the major platforms’ recommendation algorithms are designed to suggest music that’s similar to what you’re already listening to. Instead of going on a “trip,” streaming allows you stay put. The sound washes over you, smooth and steady.

In that sense, the pill-pop aesthetic and the streaming experience go hand-in-hand. Crafting a hit single with sleek synthesizers, pillowy electronic drums and Auto-Tuned purrs might be enough to get you in the game, but it isn’t enough to win. Dominance belongs to those superstars willing to replicate their softness in abundance, and then roll it out on the streaming platforms — the way that Drake and the Weeknd have each done on their wildly successful, shamelessly overlong albums of late (“More Life” and “Starboy,” respectively). Instead of forging new sounds or fresh styles, these guys are defining the era by taking leisurely laps back and forth across their respective comfort zones.

Is that such a lazy, unimaginative, horrible thing for a pop star to do? Comfort zones are hard to find in Donald Trump’s America, and our psychotropic priorities have changed. We used to want to have our minds blown. Now, we’d prefer to have our minds massaged.

Surely, the anxiety-smothering sound of pill-pop is bound to help define this moment in our cultural memory — the same way late-’60s rock-and-roll still pulses like an LSD vision, or the way mid-’80s hair-metal still screams like cocaine. But for now, let’s hope there are some big truths to be found in our pharmaceutical tranquility. Instead of seeking enlightenment through a tab of acid, maybe we can find grace through a pill — or a new Lana Del Rey album.

And if that doesn’t suit your taste, or your neurochemistry, stick around. This is America. The government, the drugs and the music all change, in due course.