PopMusic: Joe Jackson’s Cancer

Public health in pop music

Published on February 21, 2013 by Elaine Meyer

At first listen, Joe Jackson’s “Cancer” (1982) sounds like the anti-public health song. “No caffeine/no protein/no booze or/Nicotine,” Joe Jackson complains, referring to everything he’s not supposed to consume if he wants to avoid cancer.

But Jackson’s catchy tune and clever lyrics may reflect public frustration with a bombardment of conflicting, over-simplified headlines that tell us that everything from milk, to sunscreen, to bubble tea tapioca pearls can cause cancer. We begin to feel like Jackson, who naturally concludes that “everything gives you cancer,” and we tune out the message – whatever it is that week.

Jackson is admittedly not a public health exemplar. An inveterate smoker who spoke out against the New York City smoking ban, he has said that “Cancer” is “a song about how everything that’s fun is bad for you.”

With this pronouncement, Jackson speaks to public health’s perennial paternalism conundrum: How should American ideals of liberty and pursuit of happiness be weighed against laws that restrict individual autonomy but advance collective health? It is not an easy question, but as Jackson sings, “There’s no cure, there’s no answer.”

Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.

Edited by Jordan Lite.

Elaine Meyer
Elaine Meyer has worked as a journalist covering education and legal news. She graduated in 2009 with an M.S. from Columbia School of Journalism and is currently the associate director of communications for Columbia’s Department of Epidemiology, where she carries out the department's mission of translating public health science to the larger public. Follow her @emeyer5.

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