For millions of teen-age rock fans grappling with the temptations of drug and alcohol abuse, Nancy's Reagan's "Just Say No" just does not work. Yet many of these same fans seem to be responding to a series of television ads made by some of the country's biggest rock stars--because these people talk in their language.
Most of the musicians who made the Rock Against Drugs television commercials agonized over how to get the message across without betraying the rebellion and energy of rock 'n' roll.
They did not want to lose the stylishness, sexuality and, in some cases, anger that made them popular. Vince Neil of Motley Crue said, "I still party with the best of them but now I do it clean." Steve Jones, whose colleague, Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, died of a heroin overdose, looked up from his motorcycle and snarled, "Drugs suck."
It's impossible to measure exactly the effect of any advertising campaign, but letters from fans have been encouraging. One wrote to MTV, which regularly runs the spots, that the commercial by Bon Jovi encouraged him to stop taking drugs. "Those guys were the only people I would listen to," wrote the high school student. "They changed my life around," another fan wrote to rocker Ronnie Dio. "Teachers can preach for hours about how bad drugs are and I still went out and got high. But man, once I heard you say how stupid drugs are, I never touched them again!"
RAD commercials are only a tiny part of the cultural atmosphere in which people make personal decisions, and the RAD spots a small aspect of rock itself. Yet what is fascinating about the fans' reaction was total mistrust of traditional authorities, even on a life-and-death issue like drugs.
As producer of the RAD commercials, I get phone calls from well-intended anti-drug organizations wanting to involve rock stars. Many are connected to the White House campaign. But most rockers have rejected any association with "Just Say No" because they believe its condescending tone conflicts with what they feel is the emotional honesty of rock 'n' roll. The callers often cannot understand why rock fans and other teen-agers are so unattuned to authority.
While no one has the solution for combating self-destructiveness or insecurity, rock fans seem to know that the answer is not in "quick fix" approaches offered by many anti-drug campaigns, nor is it achieved by criticizing the celebrities most popular with teen-agers.
President Reagan, for example, recently attacked the film and music industries again, saying the music industry "has a responsibility to keep those who glorify drug use away from minors." Nancy Reagan, whose campaign urges school kids to sign anti-drug pledges, has attacked several films, including "Desperately Seeking Susan," because Madonna, as the title character who constantly flouts authority, smoked a marijuana cigarette in the film.
Such criticism is consistent with the Administration's pattern of combatting drug abuse--attacking symptoms without getting to cause. In similar fashion, money is directed toward drug interdiction instead of drug education.
What messages are sent to teen-agers by these and other such actions? They are quick to spot hypocrisy and they notice that legal drugs, such as alcohol, pills and tobacco--whatever their potentially lethal effects--are downplayed by the very same people who righteously condemn illegal ones. Teen-agers also recognize irrationality. They know that while most heroin and cocaine addicts may have "started" with marijuana, not all marijuana smokers "graduate" to other drugs. A more reasoned argument against marijuana could point out that it reduces productivity and can wreck personal relationships. Telling the truth about drugs, legal and illegal, will work far better than inaccurate overstatements.
There is also a challenge for educators to explain to young people how to relate to alcohol, the nation's No. 1 abused drug. By describing the difference between occasional use and alcoholism, a framework for rational honest behavior in relationships to all drugs would exist.
Self-righteousness by adults is counterproductive. This does not mean that authority shouldn't criticize self-destructiveness. It means that such criticism should be honest and compassionate.
I admit a personal outrage over attacks on the entertainment business. Rock Against Drugs was created after I told Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp's drug-abuse panel that attacks on rock 'n' roll by authority figures hurt the fight against drug abuse. In the last decade, there has not been a single pro-drug hit compared with the many anti-drug songs produced--Bob Seger's "American Storm," Huey Lewis' "I Want a New Drug" and Glen Frey's "Smuggler's Blues" come to mind. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss have been telling fans for more than 10 years not to take drugs. It is wrong for the President to imply that music is encouraging drug use when facts prove otherwise. It makes rock fans feel estranged from the highest authority in the land. And it could even make them inclined to ignore statements, including important health information, from other authority figures.
Slogans and pledges contradict one of the primary aspects of adolescence--the need to assert an individual life. One of the great appeals of rock music is its diversity. The lightheartedness of the Bangles is far removed from the angry heavy metal of Motley Crue or the gentle inspiration of Bruce Hornsby. In RAD commercials, artists talk in their own idiosyncratic language to their particular audiences.
"Just Say No" ignores this central issue of individuality. Moreover, urging "no" will never succeed unless society gives young people a sense of what to say "yes" to. Drug and alcohol abuse, in part, often stem from low self-esteem. Rhetoric that establishes only one narrow concept of what is "good" can make teen-agers who don't fit in feel they inevitably will do all the things "bad" people do.
One of the most popular songs right now, by the group U2, tells of a life-long search for truth and ends with the refrain, "And I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Although U2 members have been well publicized as dedicated Christians, the group does not feel compelled to tell their audience they have "the answer" when they are still looking. Authority figures, especially politicians, would themselves be wise to look further.