“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
Music always helps me in times of loneliness. In the midst of my pre-teen angst, I would listen to my dad’s “Pure 80’s” CD on my walkman during lunch and jam to the Eurythmics. When I spent six weeks working on an oceanographic research vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I became an Alabama Shakes connoisseur. One summer, I spent months working alone in a windowless microbiology lab, and while listening to Kanye West’s album “Life of Pablo” on repeat, I confirmed my belief that Kanye is, in fact, as good as he thinks he is. Although my introverted tendencies have eased the strain of the current stay-at-home policies due to COVID-19, my Spotify app is certainly seeing some mileage. This uptick in music consumption made me think about how the environment and climate change are being represented in popular music today…
2019 was a year for climate change action. Greta Thunberg, Time’s person of the year, became a physical manifestation of action taking, completing a carbon-neutral sail across the Atlantic, inspiring global youth-led climate strikes, and converting nebulous anxieties into a worldwide call for urgent change. As climate change moves from a dull ache to an acute pain, the environmental movement needs a stronger cultural voice in music. Songs have long been vehicles for social change, but today’s popular music lags behind the public opinion-shifting action of our youth. We need music with the ability to produce a call to arms, an action-inducing cry for our current emergency. Mainstream music’s simmering climate angst has not yet boiled over.
The environment’s enculturation in music is no secret. Folk singers like Woody Guthrie made splashes in environmental activism through their romantic portrayals of nature and landscape, and Pete Seeger’s album God Bless the Grass is highly regarded as the first environmentalist album. The environment is baked into other genres as well, reflecting contemporary public consciousness and collective anxieties. Heavy metal bands like Cattle Decapitation cast fears of runaway climate change and human extinction, Indigenous songwriters have warned of environmental devastation, and rapper Mos Def’s 2002 song “New World Water” forebodes the Flint crisis through its blended commentary on racism, global warming, and toxic pollutants. Although music clearly warns that Paradise has been paved and replaced with a parking lot, explicit reference to the environment and calls to action struggle to infiltrate mainstream music.
“This land is your land and this land is my land.”
- Woody Guthrie
“Way up north and down south is drinkin’ it (New World Water) / Used to have minerals and zinc in it (New World Water) / Now they say it got lead and stink in it (New World Water).”
- Mos Def
“Altered climate accelerating exacerbated by our human activities / We used it up, we wore it out, we made it do what we could have done without.”
- Cattle Decapitation
Today, climate change begins to emerge as popular music’s setting, the backdrop with which to reflect everyday life. Billie Eilish is a current driver of popular music and the cultural leader of generation Z, representing the wave of those born with inherited traumas. Her dark, experimental version of pop music captures the nihilistic and brooding elements of generation Z’s eco-anxiety. Eilish’s song “all the good girls go to hell” parades under the hashtag #climatestrike and talks about “hills burn[ing] in California.” Fire and destruction permeate the song’s imagery, and outside of her lyrics and performance, Eilish has been generally outspoken about climate change.
A herald of melancholia for millennials, pop star Lana Del Rey puts her branded female depression on full display within a context of environmental loss. In fact, her latest album cover depicts a California on fire in the background. Del Rey lyrically intersperses lost memories and experiences with notes about wildfires and heatwaves: “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot.” Her climate change commentary is in the detail, and among her hazy rhetoric, she concludes “the culture is lit.”
Canadian synth-pop musician Grimes is a wacky resident of eclectic music with an established spot as a fringe pop singer. In her recent album, Miss_Anthrop0cene, she melds the terms “misanthrope” and “Anthropocene,” the proposed scientific term for the current geological epoch. In this concept album, she introduces a malevolent goddess personifying climate change, using a lens of fantasy to engage with reality and to poeticize ecological suicide.
In addition to the clout of iconic individuals, the charity song is a staple of popular culture. These songs bring together the world’s biggest-selling artists to raise money and attention to global causes. In a limited attention economy, musicians have valuable currency: “We are the World” sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and sought to alleviate famine and disease in Africa, “Band Aid 30: Do they know it’s Christmas?” raised $1.7 million in its first 5 minutes for the Ebola crisis, and “We are the World 25” reached number 2 in U.S. Billboard Hot 100 while benefiting the Haitian earthquake relief efforts.
Global climate change is certainly a disaster on a comparable scale, yet mention of the environment had been noticeably absent in crisis-driven popular songs until 2019. Released for Earth Day, Lil Dicky’s “Earth” was studded with over 30 of music’s biggest stars and currently sits at 238 million YouTube views. The music video is set in a reality reel of normalized environmental inconveniences and then ships to a magical utopic past where Ed Sheeran voices a koala, Katy Perry is a pony, and Snoop Dogg plays a cannabis leaf. Lil Dicky is a novelty rapper, whose brand is comedic-induced virality, and here he produces an irreverent, juvenile tune that feels a little more like a greenwashed plot to receive attention. A portion of the proceeds goes toward the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, but no statement has been made about the financial success and subsequent contributions from the initiative. Comedy can successfully provide important political and social commentary, but as climate change’s charity song, “Earth” is upsetting and a huge disappointment. The song may have succeeded in penetrating popular culture by rounding up a cast of popular celebrities and animating them, but it makes only paltry contributions to conversations on environmental degradation and pales in comparison to its legendary predecessors.
Lil Dicky’s “Earth” has received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, but it contains hollow lyrics like “You know what, Bieber? We might die.”
Maybe musicians can tackle climate change and environmental degradation through process rather than product. The music industry has been built upon international travel and plastic production (CD cases, vinyl records, and non-sustainable concerts and festivals). Jack Johnson has been ahead of the curve and has been banning plastic at his concerts since 2007. Last year, Glastonbury went plastic free, and artists like Disclosure performed at Extinction Rebellion rallies across central London. Coldplay postponed its tour to promote its latest album because it wants to take more time to determine how a tour can be carbon neutral. Coldplay’s actions are luxuries, however, for acts with financial means to neglect profit-producing tours, and compared to music’s potential, these contributions do little to shift public opinion.
What’s missing in our current popular music is a song that not only helps us sort through our mounting anxieties but also serves as a propellant toward action. Pop culture could learn from less mainstream voices using music as a vehicle to educate about the environment. Impending climate change disaster is integrated subtly into songs, reflecting our low-humming anxieties and existential dread. Our popular music evidences our personal acclimation to an uncertain future and gives us a permission slip to feel what we feel and a tool to process the truth. But this doesn’t seem enough. The climate change crisis is here and is happening. We no longer need a reflection and affirmation of our own voices but instead a vocal authority that will sound the alarm and access music’s lever of influence.
To read more on climate change activism or how it impacts kids in Seattle, check out our previous post.