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Most nights out from my twenties are forgotten — some were hard enough to recall at the time — but one from almost exactly 20 years ago stands out in my mind. It is the memory of seeing Danny Boyle’s film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting on the first evening of its release in a packed London cinema in February 1996 — an occasion that ended, after 90 minutes of heroin addiction, alcohol abuse, underage sex, psychopathic violence and drug-dealing, with a prolonged, appreciative round of applause.
This was partly the smugness of those who had been first to see a much-hyped new film that lived up to expectations. But there was another note of self-congratulation too: the shallow, complacent pleasure of believing that the depraved action on screen, conducted in a mood of unflinching black humour, confirmed us as proud members of the most hedonistic generation of young adults in modern British history.
I was 24 then, about to leave the youngest demographic unit of adulthood. In 1992, young British men aged 18-24 began an upward trend in drinking. The highest proportion of young men indulging in “binge-drinking” — meaning more than eight units at a sitting (nearly a bottle of wine) — peaked at 39 per cent in 1998. Trainspotting’s treatment of heroin made the headlines — but it was alcohol that was truly the rising drug of the mid-1990s. The remix of dance music duo Underworld’s “Born Slippy” on the film’s soundtrack was spot-on: a surging paean to lager that somehow made it sound like the most exciting substance ever invented.
Pop music is a primary focus for drinks marketing. “Often, the goal of alcohol marketing is to suggest you can’t do the things you need to do as a young person if you’re not drinking,” says James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at the charity Alcohol Research UK and author of The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England.
Alco-money flows to musicians, promoters, venues and record labels from endorsement deals and commercial partnerships. Last year the world’s largest brewer, Budweiser’s owner Anheuser-Busch InBev, took Coca-Cola’s place as the most active sponsor in the $1.4bn US music sponsorship market. Five other alcohol giants followed it in the top 10 list: Jack Daniel’s maker Brown-Forman, brewers MillerCoors and Heineken, UK multinational Diageo and US vodka distiller Fifth Generation.
The promotional history between pop and booze goes back a long way. One of the first product placements was a 1903 Tin Pan Alley song called “Under the Anheuser Bush”. “Come, come, drink some ‘Budwise’ with me/ Under the Anheuser bush,” it went, as a pastiche German oompah band burbled away in the background. In 1988 Anheuser-Busch set up its own product-placement arm, one of the first companies to do so. In 1989 it paid almost $6m to sponsor the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour.
Since then, alcoholic drinks makers have branded themselves into pop’s landscape, displacing the soft drinks that dominated in the 1980s. Next week’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles boast an “official vodka”: the Diageo-owned Cîroc, whose “brand ambassador” is the rapper Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. A “Grammy 58” cocktail has been created for the occasion. The Brit Awards follow the week after in London with an “official wine partner”, a mid-market plonk called Frontera owned by Chilean vintner Concha y Toro. The Brits welcomed the tie-in as helping “to attract the younger adult market into the wine category”.
Mirroring the alignment between the drinks and music industries, alcohol levels in songs have gone up. A study of UK top 10 hits by Liverpool John Moores University in 2013 found that the proportion mentioning drink or drunkenness increased from almost six per cent in 1981 to eight per cent in 2001, then jumped to 18.5 per cent in 2011. A separate study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health logged nearly a quarter of US chart hits between 2009 and 2011 as mentioning alcohol. Almost seven per cent of them cited specific brands.
The trend shows no signs of abating. On “Uptown Funk”, Bruno Mars cheerfully yelps for “some liquor” to be put in his cup. Coldplay’s new single “Hymn for the Weekend” features Chris Martin fluting unconvincingly about being “drunk and high”. The song features Beyoncé, who hit the bottle on 2013’s “Drunk in Love”: “I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking/ I get filthy when that liquor get into me.”
Two music genres are disproportionately responsible for the jump in drink references during the 2000s. Country music is one, fuelled by the rise of a macho sub-genre mockingly called “bro country” in which singers such as Luke Bryan devote themselves to the diverting trifecta of trucks, beer and women. Its sales outside the US are negligible.
More significant, internationally, is so-called “urban music”, the umbrella term for hip-hop, R&B and rap. It is the other drink-soaked music genre, the funnel via which booze is decanted into pop charts worldwide. In the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s study, almost 40 per cent of urban music hits mentioned alcohol.
Hip-hop is supremely entrepreneurial. Its top stars, epitomised by rapper moguls such as Puff Daddy, have turned themselves into single-person conglomerates. Combs’s commercial interests range from his Cîroc vodka deal to clothing, restaurants, a reality TV production company and Aquahydrate, “the water of choice for elite health and fitness authorities”. He has a fortune estimated at $735m.
Self-diversification is rational in a music industry whose traditional source of revenue — recorded music — has plunged. In 2002 Combs (in his P Diddy guise; he is a man of many names) guested on the rapper Busta Rhymes’s hit single “Pass the Courvoisier Pt II”. Its success sent sales of the brandy rocketing, although neither Rhymes nor Combs were remunerated for their roles in boosting it. The lesson was learnt when he hooked up with Cîroc in 2007: he insisted on a 50-50 split of profits. Sales went from 169,000 in 2008 to more than 2m last year.
Cîroc’s sponsorship of next week’s Grammys is Combs’s latest attempt to imprint it in “millennial” consumers’ minds as a sign of success and glamour: a portal to a world (in the fevered words of the spirit’s website) “where the jet-set mingle with stylish sophisticates in the hotspots where next-generation luxury comes alive”. It has celebrated its partnership with Combs by creating the Diddy cocktail, a basic combination of lemonade and Cîroc unlikely to task even the most ham-fisted mixologist. The blending of rap star and vodka brand is a drink for our times.
The curious thing about all this drinking in pop — “Shots”, a 2009 hit by clownish US duo LMFAO, squeezed 89 alcohol references into four minutes — is that long-term trends show the target audience to be actually drinking less.
According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, over a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal, a proportion that went up by more than 40 per cent from 2006 to 2013. Binge-drinking rates are sharply down, from 29 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2013. Similar patterns are seen in the US, where underage drinking dropped by one-fifth between 2002 and 2013.
News of such temperance is greeted with surprise. In the UK, the image of drunken youths causing mayhem in town centres has been instilled in popular imagination by alliterative tabloid outrage (“Binge Britain!” “Lager louts!”). But though alcohol has always fuelled the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, it is a relative late-comer to youth culture, which initially evolved in settings that had little to do with drinking, such as cinemas, coffee houses and milk bars.
The dance halls frequented by the young British working class until the 1960s were alcohol-free, too. Their bars sold “hot tea, a variety of squashes — maybe, if it was fancy, a New York ice cream sundae,” says James Nott, author of Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-60. Venues sometimes employed middle-aged women as matronly sentinels, sniffing patrons’ breath. But drunkenness was uncommon anyway. Fast, complicated dances such as the Charleston or the Jitterbug were hard enough to perform sober, let alone tipsy. “It was a total no-no to be completely off your face,” Nott says.
Drinking rates in the UK collapsed after the first world war and did not go up again until the 1960s. The change came with more liberal licensing laws, rising prosperity and efforts by the big brewers to woo younger drinkers with revamped pubs and non-traditional drinks. (Lager, the nectar of Underworld’s “Born Slippy”, was first produced on a significant scale in the UK in 1953 when Carling launched Black Label, now Britain’s most popular beer.)
Alcohol’s entry into youth culture was paralleled by the rise of rival intoxicants. In the 1960s, less than five per cent of young adults in the UK had tried illegal drugs. By 1996, when Trainspotting came out, the proportion was almost 50 per cent. The taste for drinking developed by my generation in the 1990s followed a challenge to alcohol from the drug Ecstasy, whose popularity exploded with the late 1980s craze for rave music.
Music was a battleground for alcohol’s fightback. Beer brands sponsored venues, concert tours and festivals. Carling rebranded Reading Festival “the Carling Weekend” in 1998 and suggested that a can of beer was “a great way to start the day” for festival-goers. “Alcopops” — a quick hit of alcohol with psychedelic packaging and names such as Hooch or WKD (aka “wicked”) — co-opted rave imagery. Intoxication was the point.
“On a number of occasions the alcohol industry has sensed that it was losing its youth market and it has tried hard to recapture it,” Nicholls says. “What’s interesting about it is its speed of response to cultural shifts. It’s incredibly adaptable, a very smart industry.”
Heineken’s new TV ad campaign is “Moderate Drinkers Wanted”. It shows young women in New York singing Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” as they push hopelessly drunk young men aside. The guy who gets the girl at the end is the one who refuses a bottle of Heineken from her: a novel marketing ploy.
“We’re a long-term business and a family business,” says Heineken UK’s corporate relations director Jeremy Beadles. “We’ve been around for 150 years and if we want to be around for another 150, we have to reflect the importance of the moderate drinking agenda.”
The campaign follows research into the drinking habits of 5,000 young people in five countries. Beadles says: “Not looking like idiots on a night out has become much more important to young people than it was a generation ago.”
Millennials lead more economically precarious lives than previous generations. Social media provides their meeting spaces as bars once did. Drunkenness itself has lost some of its lustre, and its effects are harder to live down once they go viral on Instagram. Its most prominent modern victim, Amy Winehouse, is seen as pitiable, not a glamorous martyr to excess.
My generation loved the idea of drunkenness and had a rich lexicon of phrases for it — getting blitzed, off your head, wasted. While young people today still get drunk, they do so in fewer numbers and less often. In response, alcohol promotes itself as offering a different set of intoxicating properties. It is about building the new you — a jet-set Cîroc sipper, an attractively moderate Heineken drinker. The terms of engagement shift, but the battle to recruit young drinkers continues.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop music critic
Photographs: Stephen Lovekin; David Swindells/PYMCA; Ethan Miller; Ron Burton/Terry Fincher/Mirrorpix