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Good songs about sobriety for Dry January

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Happy Dry January to those who celebrate. For those who've discovered that going a whole month without drinking any alcohol has been more excruciating than expected, we have help. NPR's Neda Ulaby brings us a music critic to explore songs about not drinking.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: At first, Sasha Frere-Jones was skeptical about this idea.

SASHA FRERE-JONES: Music - it sort of makes me drunk, and I don't want to think about sobriety when I listen to music. This is dumb. I don't like these songs.

ULABY: Frere-Jones is a former critic for The New Yorker magazine. Make no mistake. This is serious to him.

FRERE-JONES: I'm coming up on five years sober, so this is all extremely personal to me.

ULABY: But even as an alcoholic in recovery, he says, his first instinct was to reject the idea of good songs about not drinking.

FRERE-JONES: Don't preach to me. Don't tell me what to do. Eww (ph), gross - I don't want that in my music.

ULABY: What he wanted instead for many years was music like Elliott Smith's.

FRERE-JONES: That was my guy. I don't think anyone has ever written about drinking better than Elliott. Come on.

ULABY: This song, "Clementine," is about a drunk passed out on a bar stool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEMENTINE")

ELLIOTT SMITH: (Singing) They're waking you up to close the bar.

FRERE-JONES: They're waking you up to close the bar. That's the first line of the song. Like, stop it, Elliott. You're too good. How much information can you pack into one line?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEMENTINE")

SMITH: (Singing) The bartender's singing, clementine.

FRERE-JONES: I thought it was saying to me, like, keep going. Keep drinking, man. Like, you know who's at the bar when they close it? Elliott Smith.

ULABY: Elliott Smith, in this way, is a little like Amy Winehouse, a musician who makes it easy to glamorize being drunk.

FRERE-JONES: I like being drunk because it's like this song. Why would I not want to feel like this song? There are no better songs, so it must be OK to be an alcoholic.

ULABY: It should go without saying that Elliott Smith and Amy Winehouse are now dead, making it harder to romanticize songs about not going to rehab or waking up in a bar.

FRERE-JONES: That's not good. It's like one of the stories in the backs of the big book. Like, you know, I was the guy that they always had to wake up to close the bar.

ULABY: When it comes to good songs about not drinking, one of the first that occurs to Sasha Frere-Jones is this one by Minor Threat, the Washington, D.C. punk band big in the 1980s and '90s.

FRERE-JONES: The reason we talk about straight-edge punks is because of this song.

ULABY: It's nearly impossible to make out the words, but the idea is that the singer has better things to do than get messed up. That's its own kind of rebellion.

FRERE-JONES: That's a version of sobriety. You got to do something when everyone else is doing something else.

ULABY: It was a completely different kind of song that turned out to be important to Sasha Frere-Jones when he heard it in a psych ward in 2019 during a horrible time in his life.

FRERE-JONES: It was grim. It was like a movie grim. We were eating the institutional food. A lot of people in that room were 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M BLESSED")

CHARLIE WILSON: (Singing) Ask me how I'm doing. I'm blessed, yes - living every moment, no regrets.

FRERE-JONES: Charlie Wilson I love. I love his voice so much. I just love him. I had to just sort of get over myself and absorb it as a song. And I was sort of like, yeah, I am blessed. I'm here.

ULABY: In the 1970s, Charlie Wilson was the successful lead singer of The Gap Band with crossover R&B hits. Then came addiction to alcohol, cocaine and crack.

FRERE-JONES: He ended up very unhoused and, like, in really, really dire, dire straits - like, no joke stuff. He suffered greatly when he was using.

ULABY: But the singer met, then married a drug counselor. He has been sober for decades.

FRERE-JONES: I think it is a sobriety song. When he says riding clean, I think he means clean in the way that we mean clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M BLESSED")

WILSON: (Singing) Riding clean, living dreams. Just left the barber, and I'm feeling like Midas.

FRERE-JONES: He's so happy. It definitely makes being sober sound pretty great. Probably the best-known sobriety song got to be "Sober" by Pink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOBER")

PINK: (Singing) I don't want to be the girl who laughs the loudest.

ULABY: This song, "Sober," was a pop hit in 2009. It was nominated for a Grammy. Pink has been open about past substance abuse. Here the lyrics are, it's so good till it goes bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOBER")

PINK: (Singing) When it's good, then it's good. It's so good till it goes bad. So you're trying to find the you that you once had.

ULABY: And I've heard myself crying, never again.

FRERE-JONES: And I don't think there's anyone who has gotten sober who doesn't understand every single word of this song.

ULABY: A lot of celebrity musicians have recently written songs with the same title, "Sober."

FRERE-JONES: Definitely interesting - Pink, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, Lorde.

ULABY: And Selena Gomez.

FRERE-JONES: The men don't have songs called "Sober." The guys have to be like, what's a clever way of saying this? The women are more like, yeah, I got sober. Here's my song. You know, the Demi Lovato one is really pretty raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOBER")

DEMI LOVATO: (Singing) I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know why I do it every, every, every time. It's only when I'm lonely.

FRERE-JONES: In some ways, one of the most important, because if it's too euphemistic, people ignore it. You know, Demi Lovato is just saying it out loud in plain language. The best current sobriety songs are, not surprisingly, in country. Like, "That's Why I'm Here" I think is a really good song.

ULABY: And it was a hit for Kenny Chesney.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHY I'M HERE")

KENNY CHESNEY: (Singing) I ain't had nothing to drink. I knew that's probably what you'd think if I dropped by this time of night.

FRERE-JONES: That might be the single most AA meeting song I've ever heard. When he says, that's why I'm here, it's one of the most clearly, like, I'm glad I am sober songs. You know, it's the simple things in life, like the kids at home and a loving wife that you miss the most when you lose control.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHY I'M HERE")

CHESNEY: (Singing) It's the simple things in life, like the kids at home and a loving wife, that you miss the most when you lose control. Everything you love starts to disappear.

FRERE-JONES: And everything you love starts to disappear. Yeah, I've been there. That's why I'm here. I love that. I love that stuff.

ULABY: Songs about not drinking cut across genres. We obviously cannot get to all of them. But here's one more that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith wrote about recovering from addiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING")

AEROSMITH: (Singing) It's amazing.

ULABY: It's called "Amazing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING")

AEROSMITH: (Singing) With the blink of an eye, you finally see the light.

ULABY: Sasha Frere-Jones says there should be more songs like this one that are not serious or grim about getting sober.

FRERE-JONES: You're living this incredibly juicy, pleasurable, amazing life. I mean, there should be, like, songs about having sex sober. There should be songs about, and then I had all of my money when I woke up in the morning 'cause I didn't spend it, and, like, complete gratitude.

ULABY: There is one sober song Sasha Frere-Jones wishes he could hear - the one Elliott Smith did not live long enough to write, a song about how good it feels to be sober and alive. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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