This article was originally meant to be a list of songs you didn't know were about weed. I was excited about the assignment because finding hidden drug references in music can be really fun. Like, did you know "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind is actually supposed to be about crystal meth?
Think about it: the guy needed "something else" to get him through his "semi-charmed kind of life", so he "bumped again," then he "bumped again." Then he just kept bumping. By the second verse he's singing about walking through the streets "taking sips of the sky" through his nose. And in my experience people don't usually feel like they can drink sky colours through their nose unless they're extremely addled and under-slept.
So since 1997 I've been thinking "Semi-Charmed Life" is just a sunny beam of commercial alt-rock about striving to transcend feelings of general dissatisfaction. It totally blew my mind that he's really singing about how "doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break" (a lyric that either got back masked or completely edited out of most radio versions).
Then I smoked some weed and got stuck in this weird philosophical loop: was my first assessment of Third Eye Blind's smash hit really that wrong? I mean, the lyrics are pretty unambiguous but so what? What if you first made out with the love of your life while the song was playing at a party? Is the song still about meth? Probably not. It's about two semi-charmed kinda lovers finding happiness in each other's arms. The argument that "everything is subjective" is a total dead end. But the fact is, once a song enters the world the artist stop controlling its meaning. The Third Eye Blind guy once told Billboard Magazine that the music's "not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny's sake. It's intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music." With the dark lyrics censored, it makes sense that most people just ended up with the bright and shiny feelings.
A musicologist could break down the reasons why "Semi-Charmed Life"'s verse-chorus-verse structure and G major chord progression evoke bright and shiny feelings. A music historian could maybe talk about how the "do do do, do da do do do" bit taps into the tradition of doo-wop music. They could argue doo-wop is a genre with such strong associations with longing and romance that it's no wonder those two semi-charmed kinda lovers felt so compelled to make out.
But that's probably bullshit too. "Semi-Charmed Life"'s doo-wop factor has got to be pretty small because it only lasts for a fraction of the song. Essentially it's a commercial-alt classic. The Critical Consensus is that commercial-alt was the dying fart of alt-rock (which was the dying fart of grunge, and grunge killed punk, and punk apparently proved rock was too commercial, and around and around we go). Besides, in the era of streaming who the hell needs a Critical Consensus to decide what a song is really about?
Here's a thought experiment to try next time you're stoned: imagine a parallel universe where in 2017 commercial-alt is still ruling the charts. Culturally speaking everything else is the same except 3 Doors Down, the Goo Goo Dolls and Third Eye Blind are getting thrashed out of stereos, laptops and phones all across the globe without a hint of irony.
In this new reality The Wire and Breaking Bad have still both been huge hits, the futility of the drug war is becoming more and more apparent, and conversations about harm minimisation are still gaining momentum (depending on where you're living). Does a reduced stigma about drug addiction mean commercial stations still edit out the meth references? Do kids even still listen to the radio enough for this to be a factor? You obviously can't censor and regulate the internet in the same ways as you can with the radio or music TV.
What about the idea that feeling disaffected was in vouge back in the late nineties? Today it seems more people are hyper-engaged with politics. Would a song longing for some vague thing to get you through life really be topping the charts? I don't know. Maybe the song's catchiness would get it over the line.
Actually, forget the parallel universe. What if "Semi-Charmed Life" gets airplay in today's reality, how does a parent answer when their ten year-old innocently asks: "what does 'he's packed and he's holding, she's smiling, she's living, she's golden' mean?" Does that parent say, "oh honey, he's singing about being in a relationship with a meth addict. Addicts tend to enable each other. For these people, doing drugs often becomes the main focus of the day, so 'holding' drugs makes them feel 'golden'. Do you understand?"
At what point does drug addiction stop being a morality issue to be censored and become a health issue to be frankly discussed? What about the original premise of this article: "songs you didn't know were about weed." When I inhaled the weed and listened to Third Eye Blind the THC interacted with the endocannabanoid system in my brain. This changed the way I distinguish between relevant and irrelevant stimuli. So the music flooded my brain in a way it wouldn't have otherwise. And even though I've heard "Semi-Charmed Life" a million times, it sounded just as vital as it did when I was ten. THC also effects you're your short-term memory and your ability to plan. For a lot of people this puts them much more 'in the moment,' especially when they listen to music. For other people it messes with stress levels and mood regulation in a really negative way.
For me, it's when the music stops that things can get weird. The song finished and, without the flood of stimulation, my brain couldn't rank relevance using the usual hierarchies its been conditioned to. And that's the moment the philosophical loop trapped me.
I ended up thinking, if weed gives people such an all-consuming high, in a way, doesn't that mean that every song you listen to when you smoke is about weed? Which, really, is probably just stupid stoner argument that gets you nowhere.
All I know it that empirical facts are empirical facts. But in a post-truth world full of "alternative facts," it pays to examine things from every single angle you can think of before you decide what something's about. With most things the best you can the best you can come up with is a well-researched subjective interpretation. So anyone who insists they know what a song or an album (or any piece of art) is really about is an asshole.
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Artwork by Ashley Goodall.