While Climate Change is without a doubt underrepresented in respect of its severity, it is not non-existent in our popular culture. Countless documentaries, movies, and books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been created containing themes of a changing climate and its implications for our existence. However, when I think about the thematization of climate change or other environmental issues in music, it appears that there is an absence compared to those other mediums. This is somewhat surprising given the role music has played as a platform for highlighting social and political issues in the past. Famous examples are the anti-Vietnam War protest songs of the late 1960s or, more recently, music against police violence as part of the BLM movement. But what role can music play for raising awareness of environmental issues?
Environmentalism in Music
To raise awareness for an issue, it is best if the method of outreach reaches the most amount of people. Unfortunately, climate change is not a popular theme in mainstream pop music, the genre with the largest reach. In many respects the music industry presents itself as a large contributor to climate change, for example through the large carbon footprint of concert tours. Even when there is a drive to raise awareness through organizing large-scale musical events, there is a mismatch between what these events are promoting and their ecological impact. A famous example is the Live Earth concert from 2007, organized by Al Gore, which had a carbon footprint of more than 3000 times the average Britons yearly emissions and was widely criticized as being hypocritical.
It is difficult to measure what effect events like Live Earth or songs that deal with environmental issues have on the awareness of the listeners. Nonetheless, it can play an important role in reminding us of the existential threat that we are facing. And just how the threat of climate change is constantly surrounding us so should it be represented in the media we consume. Therefore, I would like to highlight some of my favourite examples of how music can successfully portray environmental issues.
A Subjective Environmental Music Primer
From Beethoven´s Pastoral Symphony to John Denver´s Take Me Home, Country Roads, nature has always been a popular theme in music. So, it would make sense that the destruction of said popular theme is also given significant attention by musicians.
One of the first famous songs that takes up the issue of nature falling victim to human expansion is Joni Mitchell´s 1970 folk song “Big Yellow Taxi”. To the tune of a strumming acoustic guitar and backing percussions, Mitchell laments the irreversible damage done to the environment when humans “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. The song also nicely showcases how music takes up the prominent issues of the time when Mitchell sings about the use of pesticide DDT, the subject of Rachel Carson´s famous environmentalist book “Silent Spring” which was released a few years prior.
Only a year later, Marvin Gaye releases arguably the greatest album of all time in What´s Going On, the story of a war veteran who returns to his hometown just to find it unrecognizable. It is not only a masterpiece from a purely musical perspective but is also one of the first pieces of music that thematize ecological issues. The song “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” describes the environmental devastation he encounters, from polluted skies to oceans contaminated with oil. The song reaches its climax in its final lines when Gaye asks us “What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?”.
With climate change becoming more of a known issue towards the end of the 20th century, its appearance in music also increases. The Pixies’ 1989 piece “Monkey Gone to Heaven” has the alternative rock band singing about the big environmental crises of the time. From polluted oceans to global warming (“everything is gonna burn”), and, very much in tune with the year 1989, the CFC-caused stratospheric ozone depletion (“there´s a hole in the sky”).
Moving closer to the present, more music starts to display increased awareness of climate change as the defining challenge of our time. Included in this is the portrayal of climate anxiety and environmental grief that many are experiencing. On the opening track “A Lot´s Gonna Change” from her 2019 album Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood interweaves the anxiety of being confronted by the uncertainties of adult life with the uncertainties of whether there will be a life to live. Images of “falling trees” and “high tide” double as metaphors for the crumbling of both the safety of your life as you know it and the natural world. The album ends in an instrumental version of the opening song played on strings. The piece is named “Nearer to Thee”, after the final song that the string quartet supposedly played during the sinking of the Titanic.
The closest thing to a contemporary mainstream song that thematizes climate change is Childish Gambino´s “Feel Like Summer”. Released in 2018, the song disguises itself as a straightforward, calm summer tune. However, below the soulful exterior, the lyrics convey an urgent message. The artist proclaims “Every day gets hotter than the one before. Running out of water, it’s about to go down”, and expresses his hope that the world will turn the corner and change for the better. While cleverly disguised, the underlying message´s subtle delivery runs the risk of being overlooked by the listener.
An approach that is a lot less melancholic or subtle than that of other artists is presented by the Australian progressive rock band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. In addition to having the greatest band name of all time, they are also very outspoken about climate change. 2017´s “Greenhouse Heat Death” utilizes pressing, psychedelic guitars to accompany panic-inducing lyrics like “Greenhouse, we will fry”. The band takes it a step further with their 2019 thrash metal inspired album Infest the Rats’ Nest, a concept album that tells an apocalyptic story of ecological collapse on Earth which leads the superrich to escape to Mars. The song “Planet B” includes in its lyrics a slogan that is often also seen on banners at climate protests: “There is no Planet B” the lead singer screams over the machine gun-like drums.
The polar opposite of KG&LW´s version of environmentalist music is given in Kutiman´s 2019 ambient jazz album Antarctica. This project was commissioned by Greenpeace to bring awareness to the issue of the melting iceshelfs on the eponymous continent. “Caustic”, a piece running for more than nine minutes, contains beautiful key loops that, towards the end of the piece, slowly dissolve and vanish. A much more calm and abstract representation of the climate crisis, the album makes for a very introspective listening experience.
Soundtrack for the Climate Crisis
To conclude, I would like to play my small, insignificant part in promoting environmental awareness through music by sharing a Spotify playlist containing the songs I mentioned in this blogpost. These are some of my personal favourites, so the list is very much limited by my music knowledge and taste. The playlist is collaborative, so if you have any songs that you like which portray environmental issues in any way, I would be very happy if you add them to the playlist.