Acid On Me Like the Rain: Mapping Psychedelia’s Big Pop Culture Moment
Jun 26 2018, 5:00am
Frank Ocean, Kacey Musgraves, and Kanye West's tripped-out experiences suggest hallucinogens are infiltrating an anxious generation as the Xanax era ends.
For those who don’t have a vested interest in psychedelics and/or men who exist primarily in black-and-white photographs, let me introduce Timothy Leary. Back in the 50s, the psychologist and writer was primarily responsible for two things: a) the phrase “Turn on, tune in and drop out” and b) fiercely advocating for and conducting research into the mainstream therapeutic qualities of psychedelics.
As part of his research into consciousness, Leary developed a five-level scale to assess the intensity of different psychedelic experiences. The first is a mild sensory high—the kind you’ll recognize if you’ve ever gormlessly peered into a fridge at three in the morning popping olive-after-gorgeous-olive into your mouth. The second is a little more intense: your thought process becomes deep and abstract, perhaps debating whether or not cats are spies sent by ancient aliens.
The third, however, is where things get interesting. Words hardly do this level justice, and more often tend to fall into the language of cliché—as I did, recounting a high-dosage mushroom trip to friends a few weeks ago. To summarize: “the colors were composing to create a whole,” geometric Flower of Life patterns took over my visual field and peaceful sadness leaked from my eyes as I listened to Frank Ocean’s Blonde, every note on the record synergizing with the wholesomeness of reality filtered through a heightened empathy. Or something like that: *upside down emoji face*.
Released in 2016, Blonde floats on the fumes of a growing cultural resurgence in psychedelics—an idea given credence by the release of several pieces of work this year. For proof, look to Kanye West’s ye, Kacey Musgraves’ colorful yet country-influenced Golden Hour, the pulsating holistic ambience of Jon Hopkins's Singularity, the op-art visualizers for Beach House's new album, and two books—Trip, the first non-fiction work from the once amphetamine-addled Tao Lin; andHow to Change Your Mind, by the nature and culture journalist Michael Pollan, in which he investigates the medical revolution surrounding psychedelics.
After what Lin describes in Trip as a "whatever it takes" approach to writing previous novel Taipei—involving benzodiazepines, opiates, amphetamines and MDMA—he grew interested in the psychedelic experience (and wrote a column for VICE about it). But for those who aren’t Adderall-popping, observational novelists, a question remains: why does it feel like our interest in or reference to psychedelics has increased—especially as Xanax use has similarly infiltrated music, from lyrics to general artistic aesthetic, in a different way? And, to that: how does this generation’s relationship to psychedelics in popular culture differ from those who came before it?
With the exception of some gaping historical holes (this is an essay, not a book), the modern narrative of psychedelic culture can be briefly separated into a few eras. These are:
- The 60s: Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg began documenting their experience with hallucinogens (Ginsberg has said that Part 2 of his infamous HOWL poem was "peyote writing") and black-and-white icons like Bob Dylan and The Beatles injected Technicolor into their work, ending, or at least culminating, in the banning of LSD in the UK and US, linked to a heightening in political awareness (which the governments did not like) and, later, the Manson Family murders, believed, in part, to have been influenced by the Beatles track “Helter Skelter.”
- The 70s: Brian Eno wore shiny trousers and, with Roxy Music, wrote one of the best songs to breathe onto this planet. A bunch of weirdos listened to Can, and Led Zeppelin definitely took LSD at one point.
- The 80s: Psychedelic-tinged rap emerged (see De La Soul’s debut, 3 Feet High and Rising); Acid House became a thing; everyone wore clothes that befitted the 'we get it, you smoke weed' meme.
- The 90s: N/A, because heroin.
- The 00s: "I ain’t acid rap, but I rap on acid" said Eminem on “Kill You.” But, aside from that, the world was generally fucked in this decade (see every newspaper headline from 2001 onward). Though the likes of Austin Psych Fest were founded (2007), and the hippy-dads of the 70s probably locked themselves in the garage from time to time, dosed up on the Grateful Dead and memories, it seemed as though psychedelics weren’t referenced in culture as much as they once had been.
And so to the 2010s, and the psychedelic renaissance. Obviously there are some black spots in the list above (yes, Erykah Badu might have taken hallucinogens when/before/after making Baduizm; nu-rave happened etc.), but, as the decade kicked off, artists like Kid Cudi emerged, taking an "eighth of shrooms just to see the universe." Then, groups like Flatbush Zombies, A$AP Mob and The Underachievers released their own psychedelic-influenced music, leading up to Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap—the formative defining moment of the new generation of musicians who could comfortably and publicly lean into hallucinogens.
This generation’s approach to psychedelics differs from those in the past, though, in the way it intersects with mental health—something that’s seen prominently on ye. West, who described his first psychedelic experience in a self-authored 2012 PAPER mag piece as being the result of inhaling nitrous oxide during a dentist appointment, recorded his latest albums in Wyoming, where he was speculated to be experimenting with psychedelics – something later confirmed by lyrics on ye.
"Tweaking off that 2C-B," he raps on the track "Yikes," before later speaking about his experience of dying and then coming back to life after taking DMT. Money-hardened British art students prefer the former, while South Americans have used the latter for millennia (joined recently by harem-panted European tourists) as one element in ayahuasca. Beyond that, you’ll probably already know about DMT in its synthesized form, if you’re the sort of person who read VICE in 2012 or someone who spends the Sunday of Glastonbury in a stranger’s tent at the very back-end of the Tipi Fields.
Setting aside ye's pre-release MAGA narrative, the album ostensibly focuses on mental health (from its "I Hate Being Bipolar, It’s Awesome" cover art to its lyrics). In a parallel universe—where the context of his Trumpist politics, and the hurt they particularly caused his black American fans, did not exist—the album could have been seen as groundbreaking in its psychiatric openness. West’s position as a global mega-star easily could have facilitated that. All of which is to say the references to psychedelics and mental health on ye are understandably intertwined.
There is, of course, a therapeutic value to hallucinogens—something Leary explored in the 50s and 60s, which continues to be delved into today. Pollan touches on it too, at one point visiting a dying cancer patient receiving psychedelic treatment, in his book. Or as Jon Hopkins put it in an interview with Noisey around his album Singularity, the psychedelic experience brings "a spark," a "sense of wonder back" into life.
"To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives," Oliver Sacks writes in 2012’s Hallucinations, as quoted in The New Yorker. This search for understanding is what prompted Jhene Aiko to turn to magic mushrooms while writing her 2017 album Trip; it was a period in which, as she told Rolling Stonelast year, she journeyed through grief and used psychedelics to help move through, understand, or alleviate trauma after a family death. Similarly on Blonde—a record that, at least during my shroom trip, seemed to be about a lot of things, but most notably unrequited and broken down relationships—Frank Ocean seemingly uses mushrooms as a way to become pensive and further access emotion—to “have a good cry”, as he puts it on "Seigfried." At other points – on album opener "Nikes" and later on "Solo"—he speaks about taking acid, and does so over instrumentals that are similarly reflective in tone to the melancholic tinge on "Seigfried."
Unlike past generations in which psychedelics were predominantly used for mind expansion on an extraterrestrial level, Ocean seems to use them as a way to look inward, to self-examine, as well as to escape. Similarly, there’s a psychedelic link between Ocean’s Blonde and Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour, which Alex Robert Ross described on Noisey as the result of them being "quietly hallucinatory records, swept away from mundanity by flood after flood of serotonin." Musing on both artist’s approach to psychedelics, Ross also writes that Ocean and Musgraves believe they’re "something that can alter them for the better, something that can strip back some layers."
Interestingly, Blonde and Golden Hour are the bookends between Xanax’s brief, yet no less impactful, influence on music. By now, you probably know the science stuff. As a benzo, Xanax is prescribed to decrease anxiety, and is a popular form of treatment for a range of mental health issues. Its recreational (and dangerous) use among teenagers, though, has grafted itself on Soundcloud rap, in which two of its most popular (and recently deceased) rappers Lil Peep and XXXtentacion spoke openly about depression, personal turmoil and their pharmaceutical drug use. In Peep’s case, on “Praying To The Sky”, he says he found some Xanax his bed, “took that shit, went back to sleep”.
Twenty-two years after Timothy Leary died, and eight since the death of his protege Terence McKenna (whose life and teachings forms the basis of Lin’sTrip), society is still coming around to the therapeutic qualities of psychedelics. But, thankfully, progress is being made. Unlike benzodiazepines—whose effects are often short-lasting and need to be taken in regular doses—recent studies of psychedelics show they have a longer-term benefit in exacerbating or in some cases completely alleviating anxiety and depression. For example, a 2016 Beckley/Imperial study found that one small dose of mushrooms can work as a therapeutic remedy; of the 12 people tested—all of whom had experienced depression over an average of 18 years—five reported still feeling free of depression after three months.
Of course, that is a minuscule study. And Xanax and psychedelics are two different forms of medicine. One is a pharmaceutical drug designed to alleviate anxiety; the other is a natural plant that is presumed to expand the mind—i.e, choose the former and you’re easing the pressure of looking in, choose the latter and you’re looking out. But, at a time when one in four people in the United Kingdom will experience a mental health condition, it’s worth delving into psychedelics as a form of mental health treatment, especially as teenage use of Xanax (whether recreationally or as a form of self-medication) has proved fatal, evidenced in VICE UK’s recent documentary Xanxiety: The UK’s Fake Xanax Epidemic.
In either case, both Xanax and psychedelics have shaped culture in the past few years. In its recreational form, the impact of Xanax has mostly been a tragic, sad blip for a young generation. However for psychedelics – and in-particular shrooms – the future looks bright. I think back to my Third Level trip, listening to Frank Ocean, and remember a passage from Lin’s recent book. "Peaking on large doses of Adderall alone in my room, I’ve never sobbed while thinking fondly and lovingly about my parents, as I have on cannabis and psilocybin," he writes, in a chapter focused on the differences between psychedelics and drugs, which he believes to be two different entities.
My experience was not dissimilar to Lin’s, as I’m sure it might have also been for West and Aiko, or Musgraves and Ocean and their own experiences. I don’t want to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," but I do want to see the world in its glory: :all the colors composing to create a whole." From looking into other pieces of music, it seems like others want that experience too—one of a brightly colored and connected escape where, for a moment (or maybe three to five hours), the shittier pieces of our world dissolve and become a little brighter.
Then, of course, after the trip I experienced, there are the next two steps in Leary’s five-level-scale: the fourth (involving out of body experiences); and the fifth (encountering intelligent entities, such as the infamous DMT elves). But that’s for another time. In either case, whatever you do, make sure you bring along a friend for the ride, and here’s to expanding until we all turn into dust.