a martini on a bar next to a cocktail shaker

In Liquor Lyrics, Singers Know Jack

By Andrew Myers

From that tear in Hank Williams’ beer to the tiny bubbles in Don Ho’s wine, the mention of alcohol has long been a staple of popular song.

In recent years, however, songs have shifted from mentioning beer, wine or whiskey to naming specific brands of alcohol.

In a new study that systematically measures mentions of alcohol brands in song lyrics, researchers at the Bloomberg School and Boston University have demonstrated how pervasive the relationship is. 

The study, published online in Substance Use & Misuse in August, examined 718 songs in genres ranging from urban and pop to country and rock between 2009 to 2011. It found that just four names accounted for more than half of all mentions of specific brands in song: Patrón tequila, Hennessy cognac, Grey Goose vodka, and Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

Sad refrain: About 80,000 alcohol-related deaths occur annually in the U.S.

In 2009, for instance, the popular singer Ke$ha sang of Jack Daniel’s in her chart-topping single, “TiK ToK”: “Brush ma teeth  with a bottle of Jack / ‘Cuz when I leave for the night I ain’t comin’ back.”

“The predominance of so few brands suggests a potential deeper relationship between marketers, the performers and the young audiences of popular music,” says David Jernigan, PhD, director of the School’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) and an associate professor of Health, Behavior and Society.  “This relationship needs closer examination by public health researchers.” 

The study mentioned by name examples of direct sponsorship of music by alcohol manufacturers, including a Jack Daniel’s party at the 2011 Nashville Songwriters Association International and a $100 million marketing deal between Sean “Diddy” Combs and Diageo, maker of Ciroc vodka. 

The researchers also found that the overwhelming majority of alcohol references, branded or otherwise, were positive. Only two of the songs in the study referenced negative consequences of alcohol use. According to the CDC, alcohol kills some 4,700 people under the age of 21 in the U.S. each year.

“Like product placements in the movies, alcohol brands are showing up in popular songs associated with lifestyles that glorify drinking. It is now common practice that, even when not directly promoting their brands, companies monitor and tacitly endorse how their brands are portrayed,” says Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, a professor at Boston University, referencing a practice known by those in marketing circles as  “brand safety.” 

Jernigan adds: “More study is clearly needed into the consequences of such exposure for youth drinking behavior, but if it is influencing kids to drink, then we in public health will have to reduce or mitigate the effects.”