For Dry January, we ask a music critic for great songs about not drinking
For those who've discovered that Dry January has been more excruciating than expected, we have help: a dive into great songs that explore sobriety.
"I'm coming up on five years sober so this is all extremely personal to me," says music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who worked at The New Yorker for a decade. His 2023 memoir Earlier reflects on his coming of age in New York City, his trajectory as a writer and musician, his family and his recovery from alcohol abuse.
Even as someone actively working a 12 step program, Frere-Jones says his first instinct was to reject the idea of good songs about not drinking.
"Music sort of makes me drunk, and I don't want to think about sobriety when I listen to music," he says. "Don't preach to me. Don't tell me what to do. I don't want that in my music."
He associated drinking with certain artists he loved, such as Elliott Smith.
"That was my guy," he says. "I don't think anyone has ever written about drinking better than Elliott." In "Between The Bars" Smith appears to be singing to the alcohol itself: "Drink up, baby, look at the stars / I'll kiss you again, between the bars / When I'm where I'm seeing you there with your hands in the air / Waiting to finally be caught."
Elliott Smith, along with musicians such as Amy Winehouse, was known for music that seemed to romanticize abusing alcohol and drugs. It should go without saying that both of them are dead, after years of heartbreaking addiction.
So what are the good sobriety songs?
When asked to identify good songs about not drinking, Frere-Jones was at first stumped. Then he remembered "Straight Edge," by Minor Threat,the Washington, D.C., punk band founded in 1980 by Ian MacKaye. It mocks the predictability and commercialism of using drugs and alcohol to escape the world.
"It's such an amazing piece of music." Frere-Jones says. "The reason we talk about straight edge punks is because of this song. And I am roughly the age that Ian MacKaye is. He sang it as a teenager and I heard it as a teenager."
Many years later, during a horrible time of his life, Frere-Jones was in a hospital psychiatric ward when he first heard the song "I'm Blessed," by Charlie Wilson.
"We would all get together and they would play us songs," he remembers. "And it was grim. A lot of people in that room were in extremely bad shape. And this amazing woman kept playing 'I'm Blessed.' And the first time I heard it, I was like, 'Lady, this is a little too cheerful.'"
"But then I fell in love with the song," he continues. "I had to get over myself and absorb it as a song. I know Charlie's story and I think it is a sobriety song."
Charlie Wilson was the successful lead singer of the Gap Band, known for crossover R&B hits in the late 1970s. Then he became addicted to alcohol, cocaine and crack.
"He ended up very unhoused," Frere-Jones says. "He ended up in really, really dire, dire straits, like no-joke stuff. He suffered greatly when he was using."
But the singer met a drug counselor he ended up marrying. He has remained sober for decades. "And he's just so happy. ['I'm Blessed'] definitely makes being sober sound pretty great," Frere-Jones says.
Sobriety as a state of mind
He suggests the best known sobriety song may be Pink's "Sober." Her 2009 pop hit was also nominated for a Grammy. Pink has been open about her past substance abuse, and the song refers to it, with lyrics such as, "Why do I feel this party's over / No pain inside/ You're like perfection/ But how do I feel this good sober?"
"I don't think there's anyone who has gotten sober who doesn't understand every single word of this song," Frere-Jones notes. "And it's also really good because it goes back and forth, from the specific to the general. Also, I just love Pink and I think it's catchy. I'm inclined to believe anything Pink says."
"I did not expect there to be so many songs simply called, 'Sober,' " Frere-Jones admits. "A lot of them are using sober or sobriety as a metaphor or state of mind. It's interesting, the gender divide. I mean, I don't think we have that many male pop stars, to be frank. But the men don't have songs called 'Sober.' "
Frere-Jones suggests these musicians may be staring down the shame and stigma of addiction. "I feel like women are just, in general, stronger and more honest," he says. "I'm not surprised that the women are more like, 'Yeah, I got sober, here's my song,' and the guys have to be like, 'What's a clever way of saying this?' "
"The Demi Lovato one is really pretty raw," he adds. "It almost isn't a song. It's like a Tumblr post, and I mean that in the most admiring way. I feel like her public [struggles] have been very agonized, really agitated and touching. And in some ways, [the song is] one of the most important because if it's too euphemistic, people ignore it. Demi Lovato is just like saying it out loud, in plain language. And I think that's really powerful."
Songs of recovery
If you want to hear both men and women singing about sobriety, you will find that in country music. "Rap and country are two great American genres in that they contain the most evidence of daily life, and they often are where things show up the fastest," Frere-Jones says. He describes Kenny Chesney's 1998 hit, "That's Why I'm Here,"as "the single most AA meeting song I've ever heard," a joyful song about recovery.
Aerosmith's "Amazing," by Steven Tyler, is another buoyant song about how sobriety feels.
"We say it in meetings and we don't say it in the world enough," Frere-Jones observes. "Like, bro, you're not going to be white knuckling. You're not thinking about what you're missing. You're living this incredibly juicy, pleasurable, amazing life."
Maybe, he adds, sober musicians should be writing more songs about that.
"There should be like, songs about having sex sober. There should be songs about '... and then I had all my money when I woke up in the morning 'cause I didn't spend it.' And complete gratitude."
There is one sober song Sasha Frere-Jones especially wishes he could hear — the one Elliott Smith did not live long enough to write, about how good it feels to be sober and alive.
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