"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Drinking songs date back to the Middle Ages. So it’s not particularly surprising that a study of recent hit recordings finds nearly a quarter of them mention alcohol—and almost always in a positive light.
What is striking is that a substantial percentage of those chart-topping numbers reference specific brands of alcohol—and only four brands account for more than half of all such mentions.
A lot of hit songs, in effect, have alcohol ads embedded within them.
“Many of the artists of these songs—particularly within the urban genre—have agreements with alcohol companies to promote their brand,” a research team led by Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health writes in the journal Substance Use and Misuse. “Thus, alcohol companies may be indirectly promoting brand-specific alcohol use among underage youth through sponsorship of popular artists.”
Utilizing Billboard magazine’s year-end charts from 2009 to 2011, Siegel and his colleagues selected the most popular songs released each year in four genres (pop, rock, country, and “urban,” which combined R&B/hip-hop with rap).
That gave them a total of 720 songs, 167 of which referenced alcohol. Of those, 46 (or 6.4 percent of the total) mentioned a specific brand of booze.
Those references “are concentrated among a small number of brands,” the researchers report. “Four brands alone—Patron tequila, Hennessy cognac, Grey Goose vodka, and Jack Daniel’s whiskey—accounted for more than half of all alcohol brand mentions.”
More than two-thirds of these references occurred in urban songs; surprisingly, “there were no alcohol brand mentions in any of the rock songs,” the researchers write. “Within urban songs, alcohol brand mentions were concentrated among a small number of artists.
“Nearly all of the brand mentions for Patron, Hennessy, Remy Martin, Grey Goose, Ciroc, Cristal and Moet occurred in urban songs, whereas 4 of the 5 brand mentions for Jack Daniel’s occurred in pop and country songs, and 9 of the 12 references to brands of beer were in country songs.”
OK, that last point is hardly a shocker. Nor is the finding that “popular music is largely portraying alcohol use as a fun part of the youth lifestyle that is free of consequences.”
Nevertheless, Siegel and his colleagues call these results “alarming, because they suggest that popular music may be serving as a major source of promotion of alcohol use in general—and of the consumption of several specific brands in particular—to underage youth.”
Studies such as these inevitably bring up the chicken-and-egg question of whether the art in question is simply mirroring the culture, or actually influencing behavior. Underage kids, after all, were experimenting with liquor long before the rap era.
Either way, however, marketing specific brands to kids by contracting with popular artists is highly questionable, ethically as well as aesthetically. One shudders to think that, if it were written today, the classic drinking song would likely be called “99 Bottles of Heineken on the Wall.”
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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