Imagine this. It’s the 1990s. Grunge has taken the world by storm. Kurt Cobain has released a song called I Hate Myself and Want to Die and then done just that. On the catwalks, emaciated models with pale skin and bruised red lips quite literally embody the mood of the times. The look is dubbed “heroin chic” and immortalised by the likes of Kate Moss. The geo-political world is a mess too. George Bush Sr. has reacted to the Iraqis in Kuwait with military force. The US has also intervened in Somalia and Yugoslavia. In short- things look bleak. The nihilism of this decade found its expression not only in music and fashion, but also in drugs, most prominently heroin.
Heroin. It was cheaper and purer than ever. Its purity meant it could be snorted rather than injected. Its use was popularised in music, film, and fashion- reducing its stigma. As music journalist Sam Quinones stated, heroin was the perfect match for “grunge’s nihilistic, dirge like sound.” But heroin was paradoxically also grunge’s own worst enemy with her victims including Cobain, his wife Courtney Love, bassist Kristen Pfaff…just to name a few. Not all who took heroin died but most struggled. One user included The Dandy Warhols front man Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s ex-girlfriend. According to Taylor- Taylor, she was at one time the “coolest, smartest, hottest chick” in Portland – until she discovered heroin. Whilst most musicians would feel compelled to compose a sad song about a love lost to drugs, Taylor-Taylor was determined not to. (“I didn’t have enough respect for that shit to be saddened by it.”) This would become the inspiration behind their highly irreverent 1997 hit, Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth.
Like all good pop songs Last Junkie opens with a catchy hook, “I never thought you’d be a junkie because heroin is so passé”. (Passé, adj., no longer fashionable, out of date.) It’s the 1990s remember, so the irony of this statement is not lost. At the time, to quote Sam Quinones “heroin use was somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society.” Thus, Taylor-Taylor (by referring to heroin as “passé”) is simultaneously mocking not only his ex-girlfriend but a whole culture underpinned by the heroin chic fad.
Taylor-Taylor’s use of humour also contributes to the song’s irreverent take on drug culture. “You never thought you’d get addicted, just be cooler in an obvious way” he mocks, “I could say, shouldn’t you have got a couple of piercings and decided maybe that you were gay.” The repetition of the line “heroin is so passé” helps support the song’s ironic attack. Humour is also rife in the song’s videoclip which depicts dancing syringes and junkies- breaking taboo. Last Junkie is also obscenely upbeat (not a minor chord in sight) which, given its serious subject matter, creates irony. This upbeat style is characteristic of Brit-Pop; a bright and catchy style of pop music that emerged in the late 90s, a very deliberate backlash against the dark nihilism of grunge. (In 2017 the album which Last Junkie appears on, The Dandy Warhols Come Down, was included on Pitchfork’s list of “Best Britpop albums that aren’t British”).
Conclusively, Last Junkie is not just a mockery of an ex-girlfriend, but an irreverent take on a whole culture built on drugs in the 1990s- from heroin chic fashion to grunge. The song’s upbeat style and frequent use of humour and irony underpins this irreverence. Last Junkie also serves as a warning (albeit satirical). “Don’t do drugs” appears to be the song’s subtext, but not because of the health risks. Rather, because “heroin is so passé.” LB.