The Myth of the Drug-Addicted Artist

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

It was heartening to read Sacha Z. Scoblic’s gutsy article on NPR, “Victims of Addiction, Not Their Art.” In this year’s wake of musician overdose deaths – from Mike Starr to Amy Winehouse – Scoblic asks that society “give the lie to this silly notion that artists must suffer for their work via drugs and alcohol.” She points out how the public, especially young people, tend to idolize and romanticize artists like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain—without acknowledging that their talents may have actually improved had they achieved sobriety and sustained recovery.

Girl singing in recording studioTeen at mixing board in recording studio at Phoenix HouseAs the Music Program Director at the Phoenix House Academy of Westchester, I certainly agree with Scoblic when she says that “this notion that art must be accompanied by addiction is not just insidious; its enabling.” Many of the kids I work with here in the Phoenix Rising Music Program arrive with a deep-set misconception that drugs are necessary to fuel creativity. Those who rapped or recorded music before they entered treatment always did it while they were drunk or high. They assume it was the drugs that sparked their art—but they soon learn otherwise. “I’m not going to lie, it was harder to rap when I was high,” a young client named Eric tells me. He says the drugs always made him nervous and aggressive. “It’s not like that in here,” he adds.

Here, teens discover that they can actually compose and perform more successfully and imaginatively without drugs or alcohol; this revelation comes as a great surprise for them. Their attitudes towards music-making change completely. Their role models, however, don’t change—and its unfortunate that so many of the famous artists they love and admire often set a pretty bad example in terms of substance abuse. Scoblic is right that greater media emphasis should be placed on “got-it-together” musicians like Stevie Nicks and Steven Tyler—those whose careers have thrived in recovery.

The kids at the Academy all have big plans, and they all want to find a career in the music industry. I try to help them develop a deeper understanding of what that really means—the fact that being a musician is still a job. Working as a recording engineer or lyricist requires not just technical know-how but also interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate intelligently with all kinds of people in different settings. I don’t sugar-coat things, so the teens understand that music isn’t all about kicking beats. It’s not just that hyper culture of instant gratification and excess that they see on TV. In fact, that’s the very lifestyle we need to stop glorifying—it definitely has its own addictive draw, and drugs and alcohol are just part of the mess.

Some of the teen clients express trepidation about going back home after treatment. Will they return to their old ways? You never know for sure, but the important thing is that they go back to the “real world” with the tools they learned in treatment. They’ve now had the experience of breaking their bad habits, and breaking that misconception that they are only capable of creating music when they’re high. They’ve had the opportunity to prove themselves wrong in that regard. “I love this studio,” says one client, Domonique. “Being sober makes me see that I can learn this stuff and maybe do it for a living someday.” The kids won’t forget their experience here, the fact that they were completely substance-free and still following their passion and making music—better music than ever before. That’s success right there.

Marc Smith
Music Program Director
Phoenix House Academy of Westchester

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1 Comment

  • I think that music opens the mind to dreams, in a way that’s healthy.Being able to express life through music is a gift and I’m glad to know we are giving youth that opportunity.

    I understand the fear and mixed feeling associated with having to practice music without drugs. It can be challenging going back to the societal from which you are accustomed too.

    Push up Phoenix House Music Program!