Music For Our Emergency
Greta Thunberg did not sail across the Atlantic Ocean for two weeks to become a lead singer. But, just days after the 16-year-old proselytizer censured a room of world leaders many times her age for their shared "fairy tales of eternal economic growth," the internet made her one, anyway.
The most impassioned moments of Thunberg's September sermon at the United Nations quickly sprouted musical memes. In New York, a drummer growled her words above relentless Swedish death metal, a nod to her homeland that doubled as a fundraising blunderbuss for Greenpeace. Two producers turned the speech into bombastic electronica, with roaring choirs and stomping boots set to scenes of forests burning and children marching. And another mashed the day's cri de cœur—"Right here, right now is where we draw the line."—with the Fatboy Slim hit "Right Here, Right Now." Just days later, Slim himself slipped it into a live set, sending his audience into a tizzy.
Environmentalism in music is nothing new, of course. A full quarter-century before James Hansen told Congress that humans were changing their climate, Peter La Farge, an indigenous songwriter from the Southwest, repeatedly warned of environmental devastation on 1963's As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, a remarkable album of Native American laments about the various plagues of pioneers. From Joni Mitchell singing of the birds, bees and DDT to Neil Young rhapsodizing of "Mother Earth / and her healing ways" in 1990 (or grousing about "old white guys trying to kill mother nature" in 2019), the stars of the '60s and '70s have often stepped into a post-Silent Spring fray.
It's never stopped, really: Depeche Mode sang of forests dying and streams putrefying in 1983, presciently alluding to climate-science deniers. One of Dave Matthews' earliest songs, "One Sweet World," inspired a Ben & Jerry's flavor that has raised tens of thousands of dollars for an environmental coalition. There are entire milieus of metal and punk devoted to socioecological unsustainability, realms where nuclear weapons and animal agriculture share culpability. On her second album, Miley Cyrus wrote a rock song about "going green," while Anohni sardonically longed for it all to burn — "dogs crying for water... fish go belly-up in the sea" — above demonic horns and militant drums on "4 Degrees." Mos Def has rapped about the money-hungry ruining the water supply. And even Smash Mouth tried to alarm us about the corroding ozone layer and melting ice shelf during "All Star," that song from Shrek.
Thunberg's unlikely ascendance as a source of inspiring samples highlights something that's missing: a song that helps us sort through our globally mounting anxiety about climate change and our role in our own potential doom, an actual anthem that propels people towards action. Despite its news-cycle ubiquity and increasing threat of globe-altering impacts, songs touching on climate change have rarely crossed the threshold of the mainstream, existing instead as a distant flicker on the radar of our collective awareness. "Big Yellow Taxi," perhaps as close as we've gotten to a unifying environmental ode, turns 50 next year; it's been so ubiquitous for so long it feels as pat as an advertising jingle.
In the last few years, however, global warming and the intense feelings it fosters have begun to creep subtly into lyrics where you may overlook them, a quiet corollary to a movement spider-webbing through electronic music. Songwriters are increasingly treating climate unease like the very air we breathe or the technology we use — a part of life with which we must reckon and reconcile, like love or lust or loss.
These new tunes aren't protest songs as we think of them, and they don't shoehorn motivational slogans into their choruses; they are reflections of a reality lived under the specter of global collapse, the evidence of our personal adjustments to an anxiously indeterminate present and future. And their writers, unlike Thunberg, aren't looking to proselytize to world leaders or to synthesize scientific research into an empowering single — they're not the experts, after all. They're just people offering others a way to sort through what's happening, even to mourn what's already been lost. It's the difference between a command and a confession, a lecture and a conversation.
"We're afraid of darkness. We're afraid of endings. We're afraid of death," says Tamara Lindeman, a Canadian singer whose work as The Weather Station has started to integrate snippets of impending disaster into her songs. Her next album, due in 2020, commits to the subject. "To look at something so profoundly devastating is so scary, but it's powerful if you can allow yourself to feel those feelings. You can stop hiding from it. Having that experience through art is healthy."
Some of these newer songs confront global warming like a mammoth sparring partner, squaring up to the subject wielding rhetoric like fists. Andrew Bird's "Manifest" sounds as breezy as a Sunday stroll through the Laurel Canyon, with licks of whistling and gliding strings. But in the first verse, he renounces the United States' westward sprawl, condemning a country of unfaithful stewards. He gazes at the ocean with anxiety and ponders the way we burn ancient organisms — the fossils in our fossil fuels — just to drive to the grocery store. During 2016's "Generation Why," Weyes Blood offers her fearful vision like she's reading the evening news: "It's not the past that scares me / Now what a great future this is gonna be." She spells out "YOLO" during the hook, her mind caught in the evermore-tight vice between modern indulgence and future existence.
Others, though, are almost subliminal in their climate change invocations. Justin Vernon hides his worry in plain sight during Bon Iver's "Holyfields." With his clutched falsetto, he renders "The dawn is rising / the land ain't rising" almost as an aside, as if the circumstances of modern Venice and future Mumbai, Bangkok and Miami are so obvious they're best left coded. Lana Del Rey slips her own stark observations into the final verse of "The Greatest," calmly inserting a note about wildfires and eternal heat waves between lines about Kanye West's blond hair and Hawaii's bomb scare. On a song where "the culture is lit," it's a lyrical detail that's easy to miss — just as it's possible to overlook that, on the album's cover, California is burning.
Blake Mills knows that coastline in flames well.
Born in Santa Monica and raised in Malibu, the songwriter and star producer, once called "the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal" by Eric Clapton, is conditioned to months of perpetually balmy days, interrupted with occasional downpours as fall slides into winter. But a few years ago that rain was slow to come, and the landscape around Los Angeles felt like a tinderbox. When, at last, storms arrived, a friend joked to Mills that maybe it would be the last rain ever for Los Angeles. The storm's petrichor, Mills remembers, smelled of nostalgia.
Mills sat down at his piano and began to ponder what that might mean. The result — a sobering, tender ballad called "Summer All Over" — teeters at the threshold of hope and despair. With his sigh caked on the keys like mud at the bottom of some drought-devastated lake, Mills tempers his quiet horror by "looking for laughter, looking for kindness," for any human quality that aims to right our colossal wrongs. Mills captures that seesaw of feelings musically with a pervasive flicker of melodic dissonance. Electronics drift in the background, like smog hovering above a troubled valley.
"Writing about the season of summer inherently evokes a Beach Boys vibe, maybe because I'm in Los Angeles," says Mills, who penned the song with Cass McCombs and hopes to release it on his third album. "But the implication of the warmest season happening all over the world at the same time is an 'endless summer.' "
He notes the sad irony of a term that, less than 50 years ago, belonged to a relatively carefree Beach Boys collection. But "Summer All Over," an enticing title that suggests burnished bodies on a California shoreline, is tragically beautiful, a warm hug from an old ghost. Rock and roll can't be all good times on the bleeding edge of environmental ruin.
While touring for the last several years, Kentucky songwriter Joan Shelley came to similar epiphanies along the California coast. Not long ago, she was driving north from Los Angeles to Seattle between shows, marveling at the scenery along California's fabled Highway 1. She remembers the cliffs and the sunlight glittering on the Pacific, a fantasy come to life. That image is captured by "Stay All Night," a seaside reflection from her quietly uneasy 2019 album, Like the River Loves the Sea. She marvels at the vista but, in the final verse of her reverie, wonders how temporary it may be, hoping that "the waves don't rise this high." Actually, it was the opposite: On a recent return visit, that road was closed, nearby cliffs washed into the water by landslides.
During the album's arresting centerpiece, "The Fading," Shelley retreats to Kentucky, the place Mark Twain (allegedly) joked he'd like to be when the world ended, because it's always years behind everywhere else. Shelley keys on that idea as she reclines to witness the natural world overrun the order we've imposed upon it. "I cheered the flood / when the water hit the wall and won," she lilts, her cotton-soft voice temporarily stiffening. It's a love song at, and for, the end of time, an exercise in appreciating what you've had the chance to cherish, whether it's a drink of gin or a gentle lover or a lovely day.
Sometimes, Shelley admits, she turns off the news, because the devastation is too much to hear. As a songwriter, then, it was paramount to create a new way of approaching that helplessness, of facing those truths. These songs don't protest reality — they simply acknowledge it.
"With the small rooms I play for, I'm hoping to give people tools for feeling where we may want to be numb. There's a grief that is hard to admit to," she says. "But through art, people can express those low-humming anxieties in a way that isn't so hard to face."
The sweetly wizened voice trailing Shelley's during "The Fading" belongs to fellow Kentucky native Will Oldham. She, in turn, adds harmonies across I Made a Place, Oldham's first record of original music as Bonnie "Prince" Billy in eight years. Moments of intense worry and woe linger in the record's quiet corners, absorbing the light of these seemingly incandescent songs. During the album's jaunty first verse, a home burns, part of a personal conflagration that Oldham suggests is spreading. And during the hypnotic "Nothing Is Busted," a wounded woman and an oblivious man capture the dynamic between our ecosystem and our social order, a relationship hamstrung by the need for new things to sell, buy and discard. "This particular assemblage of molecules and memories someday soon may just run out of gas," Oldham sings in one song's closing verse without pausing to take so much as a breath, as if racing against the apocalypse.
For most of I Made a Place, Oldham dances around or with these end times. But during "This Is Far From Over," an acoustic stunner near the album's center, he faces them with softness and resolve. Presumably written for his newborn daughter, the song conjures a world where rising tides force her to take to the sea as an adult, a continental refugee who will do her best to persevere. It is a tragic lullaby, a preemptive apology for the mess she will inherit. Despite the title, Oldham is neither blithe nor disingenuous, using the last verse to confront the possibility that new kinds of life will thrive in humanity's absence. "The whole world's far from over," he sings in the final line at the edge of his falsetto, just where his voice might crack into tears.
"Our kids are being handed a rotten deal, everyone's children," says The National's Matt Berninger, father to a 10-year-old daughter, Isla. "The Industrial Revolution gave the Earth a gaping wound not that long ago in the grand scheme, and it's bleeding out fast. But a tipping point is happening, I think, in understanding how rigged that system is."
The National have rarely been an overtly political band — Berninger has instead spent two decades mapping the darkest and most dangerous corners of his psyche. He's worried out loud about handing down his worst habits to Isla, about taking love too hard for his own health, and about losing himself in the strange alchemy of lust and blood and booze. But now the peril of climate change has entered that matrix of considerations, part of "the soup of everyone's minds and hearts all the time," as he puts it, alongside sex and drugs and comedy and general dread.
In December 2018, Berninger was at a wedding just north of Los Angeles when a song sketch from The National's Aaron Dessner arrived. Berninger woke up one morning before sunset and, while wandering the streets, unspooled 17 verses to the loop, a sort of living chronicle of his consciousness. There were headline anxieties about the alt-right and immigration, opinions about R.E.M. and The Bible, an interest in the seemingly infinite minimalism of artist Hanne Darboven.
When he sent the epic to Dessner and filmmaker and producer Mike Mills, they trimmed his diarist sprawl and added an unexpected twist: the dire verses of "Noble Experiment," a waltz for the end of humanity, released by indie-rock eccentrics Thinking Fellers Union 282 in 1994. During the finished version, "Not in Kansas" from this year's I Am Easy to Find, a small choir intones those doomed words — "Be a fish or a weed or a sparrow / For the Earth has grown tired and all of your time has expired" — between Berninger's own verses.
The National effectively nest the end of the world inside a laundry list of mundane thoughts; it's like finding your own death certificate in the day's otherwise ordinary mail. The world teems with distractions, "Not in Kansas" implies, to keep us from the crisis at the door.
"I don't know how any artist isn't talking about all of this stuff — sexism, racism, global warming, corporate corruption. I can't spend time on a song now unless it's somehow aware of that stuff," Berninger says. "Art has the responsibility to try to enlighten, instead of just entertain. Pop music is still afraid to get into it, but not everyone."
Perhaps the closest that recent pop has come to the subject is "PARAD(w/m)E," a slyly sparkling 2018 single from the North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso. The tune is ebullient, with a chorus that sounds like a mechanized schoolyard chant and verses that shimmer like sunshine on the distant desert horizon. It's possible to hear and even sing along without ever reflecting on its apocalyptic scenes — the gasless gas stations, the flora-less forests, the reprieve-less heat.
Singer Amelia Meath laughs ruefully about fans who show up to shows wearing homemade shirts reading "How's that for manifesting our destiny," having misinterpreted the song's linchpin indictment as a self-help mantra fit for yogis. About halfway in, Nick Sanborn's keyboards wobble from their glistening perch, slinking briefly into a morass beneath taunting handclaps. In the refrain, Meath's proclamation of liberation — "We finally got free" — comes only after she reveals the cause: We've already ruined everything.
While "PARAD(w/m)E" never landed on Billboard's charts, it suggests a clear framework for some future global-warming protest anthem, much like Billie Eilish's subtly hypnotic "all the good girls go to hell": lyrics so sharp listeners might not feel the knife, surrounded by music that celebrates whatever it is we've salvaged.
"No one likes the guy at the party who is just talking about horrible stuff all the time. But that's me," says Meath, smiling. She's worked to weave such concerns into Sylvan Esso's third LP, likely arriving in 2020, without being didactic. "That song is cloaked, very specifically, to be easy to swallow. That is the dream: Make the funnest music about the heaviest shit."
In Iceland, mourners hold funerals for dead glaciers. In Washington state, a pioneering three-credit course called "Environmental Grief & Climate Anxiety: Coping in the Age of Consequences" teaches students how to sort through their despair and identify its sources. (The class subsequently became a Fox News punchline.) And in magazines from Vogue to Vice, recent articles about "eco-grief" signal the drift of these fears into the mainstream.
Songs about climate change are an inevitable, essential, and overdue component of that movement, a necessary response and tool for people "to process the truth and the existential dread," as Berninger puts it. And while these songs have slowly started to accumulate during the last several years, it seems that we're just at the edge of a new tide of them.
Next year, alongside new records from Sylvan Esso and The Weather Station, Grimes — a fringe pop star who has delighted in dancing at the edge of accessibility for a decade — will release Miss Anthropocene. "Each song will be a different embodiment of human extinction," she has written. So far, its singles have mined the power dynamics of abusive relationships and the burden of despondency, topics that get to the nuance of the overarching issue.
In a presidential election year, when the United States is officially able to exit the Paris Climate Agreement, Grimes likely won't be alone, either in commiserating peers or coping listeners. The British singer-songwriter Bill Fay, now in his late 70s, touches on the topic for Countless Branches, due in January, while buzzy LA producer Shallou cloaks concerns about environmental collapse in breakup imagery on an album due next summer.
None of these songwriters work under the illusion that these tunes, however poppy or plainspoken, will literally fix anything, from reversing President Donald Trump's confusing climate-change denial to adjusting people's disposable plastic habits. As working musicians, they have practical issues of their own to navigate, anyway, as the mechanisms of distribution for their work — be it a server churning through electricity or an LP made with petroleum or a tour bus burning gas — inextricably entail a carbon footprint for now. Coldplay won't tour behind their recent Everyday Life until they can do so in a carbon-neutral way, a powerful stand from one of the world's biggest bands but a strategy that's not yet sustainable for small acts working merely for their living. It's the essential friction of making and selling art that questions capitalist foundations.
But for now, these songs simply exist for the people who need them, their writers included. They're not expressions of what they know or what they want you to do but only how they feel — and implicit permission slips for you to feel that way, too.
"I'm not hoping to shine a light on something for anybody. Everything that needs to be said is being said really clearly," says Mills, referring to scientists and policy experts who know and can articulate what he cannot. "But my song is about how we're reacting to that information. And despair in music can help soak up the despair of the people listening."
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