When it comes to “entertainers” and drug use, there are two distinct genres of popular entertainment. One of them is charged with enforcing ethical norms, while the other is not. The managers of major American sports leagues and federations are expected to enforce codes of behavior that prominently include zero tolerance for criminal behaviors that include the use of doping drugs and now, following recent events in the NFL, domestic violence. Even as the use of hormonal doping drugs is increasing among the general population, the administrators of professional and Olympic sports are intensifying their campaigns against doping to meet what society is assumed to expect from athletes. Accordingly, the National Football League (NFL) commissioner recently claimed that he has a responsibility “to what I see as society. People expect a lot from the NFL.” i
In stark contrast, entertainment products such as films and videos or performed and recorded music are essentially unregulated cultural commodities. Indeed, they are often celebrated for violating traditional social standards that condemn extreme levels of violence and the depiction of deviant sexual behaviors or drug abuse and its consequences.
So how do drug-using celebrities manage their immunity from harassment by law enforcement? Drug-using entertainers have addressed accusations in ways that have ranged from blanket denials to open acknowledgements of drug use that can take the form of an exhibitionistic pride in having done whatever it required to be able to perform. This sort of libertarian pharmacology legitimates the artist’s right to express his or her creative gifts through the use of any intoxicant. The performers bear no moral responsibility for the content or consequences of the entertainments that come out of them.
Why is there a class of performing celebrities who use doping drugs yet escape public condemnation and are spared investigation and prosecution by law enforcement? The historian Richard Davenport-Hines has pointed out that a small group of creative types manage to elude the censure and oppression that are inflicted on the drug-consuming majority: “Being ‘on drugs’ can be represented as a depraved appetite, a wretched obsession, escapism for fugitives; or as a search for transcendental visions and mystical excitement…. Many [drug users] are put under surveillance, and ostracized as members of a threatening underclass; but a few users (rock stars, fashionable models or poets) are allowed an aristocratic status.” ii
But why is this the case?
There is a widespread belief that artists perform in a realm that is beyond good and evil. Audiences expect to see and hear from performers, not the sights or sounds of virtue, but displays of virtuosity that inspire admiration that can rise to an ecstatic identification. These uninhibited and shape-shifting creatures can transform a mass audience into a frenzied and adoring crowd that may be high on drugs itself. Awareness of a rock star’s drug habit can enable an audience to share his pleasure or, perhaps, experience a vicarious rebellion that channeled through the addict who is performing on stage. It is easy enough to believe that performers who are paid enormous sums to enter into extreme emotional states have moved past a point of no return where some form of intoxication is both normal and expected.
Some musical performers have believed that drug use might even improve their artistic ability. The great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis once said of the drug-addicted saxophonist Charlie Parker: “When I listened to that genius night after night, being young and immature and not an educated person, I must have thought: ‘If I crossed over that line, with drugs, could I play like that?’” iii The expert consensus, however, says otherwise. The truth is that illicit drugs have had a ruinous effect on many great musicians and their careers.
- Austin American-Statesman (September 11, 2014): C9.
- Richard Davenport-Hines, The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics (New York and London: W. W. Norton &Company, 2002).: 13.
- Gene Lees, Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001): 103.