Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll: has music lost its edge?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


The Stones, the Beatles, Bowie, Oasis, Zeppelin, Hendrix: all the cliches of musical greatness tend to some sort of party lifestyle. But, according to some, the life in the fast lane is on the decline among our pop stars. In a more health-conscious era – and in the wake of #MeToo – celebrities seem far less likely to let loose. Plenty would argue that this is a good thing, shown by our collective shock at the accusations levelled against Lizzo for things that once might have seemed run of the mill within the industry. From this perspective, the decline of the rockstar lifestyle is merely part of the progression of society. After all, what’s wrong with an artist who is family-focused, sober, and happy?

But others lament a bygone era: a time of boundaries being pushed, mistakes being made and mainstream art having real value. Disgruntled complaints that music ‘isn’t like it was in my day’ are nothing new – but, today, some argue the heady mix of corporatisation and squeaky-clean artists leads to no limits being pushed and no artistic headway being made. While there is clearly great success and popularity among international stars like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus or Harry Styles, some argue that pop music has become sterile, cheap and formulaic. Gone is the time when the men in suits had the good sense to let shaggy-haired, badly behaved visionaries do what they needed to do. Today, we are offered an array of PR-trained, straight-toothed smiles with expensive voices. Is this new pop the sound of tomorrow? Afterall, some argue that a lot of the sex and drugs of past musical periods covered up the poor quality of bad tunes. Or are we merely listening to the noise of a dying industry, suffocating creativity as the last bits of cash are squeezed out?

Has the creativity gone from music? Was the rockstar lifestyle ever anything to do with it at all? Or do degenerate lifestyles provide a mystique that makes us sanctify bland music? Is music really that much cleaner today? And can we make something new without chemical help?

Professor Aaqil Ahmed
director, Amplify Consulting Ltd; professor of media, University of Bolton; former head of religion, Channel 4 and BBC

Tom Collyer
researcher, Pagefield; writer; musician; alumnus, Debating Matters

Jenny Holland
writer and critic; former assistant, New York Times; author, Saving Culture (from itself) Substack

Dr Carlton Brick
lecturer in sociology, University of the West of Scotland; co-author, Contesting County Lines: case studies in drug crime and deviant entrepreneurship