By Ali Sailer, MT-BC, CAP

This blogpost is a musical exploration of the Twelve Steps as utilized by people in recovery from various types of addiction and is the expression of two desires: First, my desire to share a potential session idea with other music therapists who work in the addiction recovery field and second, my desire to process through music the thoughts and feelings of what it is like to move through the Twelve Steps. As someone who has personally benefited from a Twelve Step program that focuses on emotional sobriety (Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families), this annotated playlist partially reflects my own recovery journey albeit from a different “drug of choice”. Listed below are the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and accompanying spiritual principles, three contrasting songs that support each Step or principle, and my brief commentary. What songs would you include?


  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. (Honesty)

Can’t StopRed Hot Chili Peppers

It’s Been AwhileStaind

One Day At A TimeEagles

Active addiction is characterized by powerless over a compulsion to abuse a particular substance or behavior resulting in negative consequences. Referencing compulsion amid other more esoteric lyrics (“can’t stop, addicted to the shindig”), RHCP perfectly captures this anxious energy in the music itself. For some people like Aaron Lewis (Staind) and Joe Walsh from the Eagles, it may take a special level of pain and desperation in order to get honest with themselves: “Well I finally got around to admit that I might have a problem”.


  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (Hope)

Bridge Over Troubled WaterSimon & Garfunkel

Drowning Man U2

The Way I Tend to BeFrank Turner

Twelve Step programs advertise as “spiritual but not religious” because although it is not necessary to ascribe to a particular religion to work the program, it is necessary for many recovering addicts to find hope in someone or something that is more powerful than their addiction, someone or something that can become their “bridge over troubled water”. Incidentally, none of these songs are explicitly spiritual songs to my knowledge, but I felt that they contain powerful imagery rooted in love: “For I have promised for to be with you tonight” (U2); “You could save me from the way I tend to be” (Frank Turner).


  1. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (Faith)

Jesus, Take the WheelCarrie Underwood

Learn to FlyFoo Fighters

Let It BeThe Beatles

Step Three is about surrendering control whether by letting it be (The Beatles) or letting it go (Carrie Underwood) and possibly one of the most important spiritual principles. On the bright side, we don’t have to do it alone if we choose to ask for help (“I’m looking to the sky to save me”). In the spirit of vulnerability, acceptance and surrender are two principles that I get to practice every single day of my life!


  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. (Courage)

Man in the MirrorMichael Jackson

Not AfraidEminem

What I’ve DoneLinkin Park

Okay, this is a tough one because facing the “man in the mirror” requires willingness and the kind of radical courage evoked in “Not Afraid”, the inspirational anthem for Eminem’s musical and personal evolution from drugs and violence to recovery. In my experience, facing my faults also requires a balanced effort to take accurate inventory without beating up myself for “what I’ve done” (Linkin Park). To quote Henri Nouwen, Dutch writer on psychology and spirituality: “I was forced to enter the basement of my soul and look directly at what was hidden there, and to choose, in the face of it all, not death but life”.


  1. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. (Integrity)

Confessions Part I & IIUsher

RegretsJay Z

Starting Over Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Someone once said that integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is watching. Even if no one else knows what I’ve done, even if I fear what others may think of me, “I’d rather live telling the truth than be judged for my mistakes” (Macklemore). Sounds like Jay-Z was busy living his regrets in 1996 but I’ve also learned that authenticity fosters more respect from the people that know me, not less. By the way, Usher’s voice could make any confession sound good.


  1. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. (Willingness)

Change My Way of LivingAllman Brothers Band

Fix YouColdplay

One Step CloserBon Jovi

“I’ve seen my heart of darkness”, sings Bon Jovi, but “I‘m one step closer and I’m willing to try”. Many people recovering from addiction sense that they need the assistance of their higher power not only to kick the substance abuse but also to help them tackle their personality flaws. Since addiction is a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual malady, most likely their addiction will have taken a toll on their overall existence (“my life is in such a mess”). Are you willing to allow God to “fix you” (Coldplay)?


  1. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. (Humility)

Brand New MeAlicia Keys

ChangedRascal Flatts

Dead and GoneT.I. (feat. Justin Timberlake)

For some, Steps Six and Seven yield a spiritual transformation for individuals to be “changed for the better” (Rascal Flatts, alluding to baptism in this context). Actually, T.I.’s affirmation “the old me is dead and gone” is not too far off from St. Paul’s guidance to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Of course, it is up to us to do our part while practicing patience with ourselves. “It took a long, long time to get here / It took a brave, brave girl to try” (Alicia Keys).


  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. (Love)

Cat’s in the CradleHarry Chapin

Dear MamaTupac

HurtNine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash

Although Harry Chapin’s tune does not appear to speak directly to the negative consequences of addiction, I’ve heard numerous recovering addicts say that they relate to similar feelings of guilt over neglecting their children. Of course, this guilt could apply to any relationship, but Johnny Cash reminds us that one other important person we hurt is ourselves.


  1. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. (Discipline)


SorryJustin Bieber

On Bended KneeBoyz II Men

Making amends to the people we hurt can be an extremely difficult yet incredible character-building opportunity. Twelve Step programs advise people in recovery that the goal of the amends process is freeing ourselves by doing everything within our power to clean up our side of the street, no matter how big or small the mess. The key is to do it without reinjuring the other person (perhaps unlike Adele) and to keep the focus on ourselves (definitely unlike Justin Bieber). In my opinion, Boyz II Men came the closest to a true confession: “Gonna swallow my pride, say I’m sorry / Stop pointing fingers, the blame is on me”.


  1. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. (Perseverance)

Gloria Estefan – Always Tomorrow

I Apologize – Aretha Franklin

I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart – Duke Ellington

The bad news is if we are human (we are) and if we interact with any other humans at all (we do), then we will screw up again. The good news is “there´s always tomorrow to start over again” (Aretha Franklin). Amends are an ongoing lesson in humility and perseverance, but they don’t always have to feel as dramatic as perhaps some of the amends necessitated by Step Nine. Simplicity (“told a lie”) and a sense of urgency before it is “too late to make amends” are two considerations that help me manage my personal inventory.


  1. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (Spirituality)

Courage to GrowRebelution

Don’t Stop Believin’Journey

Higher PowerBoston

If the Twelve Steps are a spiritual solution to a drinking problem, then recovery is active maintenance of our spiritual life for continued growth in order to avoid future relapses. All Twelve Step programs incorporate some version of the Serenity Prayer into their meeting format (and many also recite the Lord’s Prayer): “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I have heard this prayer worked into pop songs by other artists such as India Arie, 50 Cent, and Macklemore, but Boston is boss.


  1. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. (Service)

HomeBlue October

Humble & KindTim McGraw

Simple ManLynyrd Skynyrd

In recovery, “walking the walk” is immeasurably more valuable than “talking the talk” because for some people it is the difference between life and death. “Walking the walk” also comprises the oral tradition that “you can’t keep it (recovery) unless you give it away”, meaning that being of service to others is vital not only to the success of the program as a whole but to each member’s recovery. Plus, it feels good. In the words of Blue October, a Texas rock band whose members are in recovery themselves: “What a glow when you’re living true”.