Decoding Black Sabbath: A Cautionary Tale of Drug Abuse

By: Patrick McGrain, PhD
Associate Professor, Criminal Justice

As a criminologist, I'm always trying to find ways to pair my personal and professional interests. With this in mind, my co-author Kevin Conway and I decided we would look at the connection between substance use and heavy metal music.

Black Sabbath has given us - over the last 47 years - a road map to understanding the perils of drug addiction. Using their entire musical catalog, we did a content analysis of 156 songs over 19 albums to determine what they were trying to tell us.

We found that Black Sabbath wasn't celebrating drug use, but detailing the horror of it; the lyrics reflect misery. In fact, 65 percent of their lyrics suggest a pattern of doom and gloom related to drug abuse.

If you take a look at the lyrics, we see a trajectory that mirrors findings from studies of pathological substance use. It starts off with songs like "The Wizard," describing a mythical being spreading his magic, and "Sweet Leaf," a full-blown love song to marijuana.

The lyrics then shift, moving from pleasure to substance use as a coping mechanism. For instance, "Hand of Doom" is about using heroin to get away from the misery of everyday life. Finally, songs such as "Methademic," released in 2013, warning of the horror of methamphetamine use, and the nightmare of addiction. Overall, the lyrics move from blissful, to needing drugs to get through life, to drugs destroying life, the natural progression of use-to-addiction portrayed in the substance use literature.

We look at the members of Black Sabbath and see drugs have taken something from their lives. What we've learned from their lyrics is that Black Sabbath does not celebrate drug use but teaches us the horrors of it. ❂

*This article was recently published in GMercyU's Spring 2017 TODAY Magazine. Patrick McGrain, PhD is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at GMercyU.*