Before the Water Gets Too High – Music as Activism in Times of Atomisation

Owain Williams and Van Lambie, with art by Vicky Chu

What was, and what was lost 

When George Strombo interviewed Angela Davis in 2011 on abolition movements throughout United States history, she reflected on a time in which movements were their own being – living, breathing and thriving – and how since then, the actions of a movement – protests, sit-ins and strikes – are seen to be the movement itself rather than a ‘demonstration of the movement’. She alluded to a time in which the end of the protest did not signal the movement’s end, when ‘we imaged ourselves as a part of vast communities’, with mutual understanding of the common issues, and solidarity in our pursuit. But today, that time, along with its spirit, all-too-often feels lost.  

In light of the previous forty years’ push for hyper-individualism, with strong countercultural movements of the past drifting further into memory, to even attempt to build solidarity in a population this fragmented feels like a losing game. The nature of the issue of climate change – worldwide, international – furthers this alienation, further than ever from any individual’s grasp. And yet, the crisis was orchestrated by the very same powers more local movements would have been in the streets protesting all those years ago, for example, with the miners’ strikes against Thatcherism in the 80s. This decay of the collective goal and mutual struggle, all the while the issue boils higher and higher, leaves us in a situation today in which organising is needed now more than ever.

Courts Against Climate Change  

Parquet Courts’ most recent album echoes the essence of Davis’ point on the song ‘Total Football’, which analogises workers’ collectivism with a 1970’s Dutch football tactic. Calling for the union of rebels, teachers, strikers and sweepers, the Courts deliver a message of unification. Under the total football system, each player is expected to fill in for other members of the team rather than specialize in their own position, a distinctly collectivist approach where ‘no one part is bigger than the sum of the team’. Teamwork over individual performance. At the song’s post-punk peak, Parquet Courts yell ‘collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive’. A protest against the erasure of society into the actions of the individual: anti-atomisation in the face of climate disaster. It echoes Davis’s notion that to make change, to be a part of the soul of a movement, is to live it throughout your time – beyond the protest’s close – because attempting to balance individual and collective need is a clash of ideals we face daily. It is a struggle ingrained in the advent of the pervasive notion that our choices within consumerist culture can solve the people’s broader issues – the lie that buying power is sufficient in contorting the politico-economic structures within a sustainable threshold. 

So what kind of climate movement do we need? Do we need a movement that stops at the protest’s end, or one that persists beyond? Climate activism in music isn’t a new phenomenon, but as environmental issues move into the foreground of songwriting, it becomes critical to make the right kind of statements in music. Addressing structural issues affecting the climate on a broad, collective scale, and demanding change from the right people is imperative.  

The rest of the Courts’ album hones in on similar themes, most unsubtly on ‘Before the Water Gets Too High’, an obvious rumination on climate change, where they ask ‘Is it someone else’s job until the rich are refugees?’. This conveys a refocusing of responsibility from the individual to the worst offenders, communicating the indirect burden on the everyman for climate action. The Courts’ music, self-aware, exists to communicate their political message, as is expected of any responsible punk band, a message which is collectivist and extends its reach beyond the end of the track. But they still exist on the fringes of music today and lack the platform to communicate and organise despite having a sound and considered message.  

Ha! You think it’s funny? (Turning rebellion into money) — The Clash 

In the midst of the pop world, Billie Eilish made headlines for her climate change awareness in her music, as well as broader commitments in her personal life with veganism. Then in her celebrity with the eco villages on her tour. Along with these, her contribution to the launch of Music Declares (known for their ‘No Music on a Dead Planet’ campaign) made headlines, with thousands of fellow musicians joining her in demanding government action on climate change. In 2019, on ‘all the good girls go to hell’, she sings ‘Hills burn in California / My turn to ignore ya / Don’t say I didn’t warn ya’ in the pre-chorus.  

This all feels good, especially the launch of Music Declares, but the lyrics and comments she made at the time tell a slightly different story – granted, two years in the past – but one that shine a light on Western motivations and attitudes around climate action. As if a direct confirmation of Parquet Courts’ line ‘Is it someone else’s job until the rich are refugees?’, she speaks out on the climate only as her immediate area, California, sees some of the fallout of the shifting climate.  

The song’s lyrics do give a voice to the hopelessness many of us feel, like with Childish Gambino’s ‘Feels like Summer’ with ‘I’m hopin’ that this world will change / But it just seems the same’. It’s a valid musical expression, but without directing the listener elsewhere, although perhaps cathartic, it functions to reinforce the feeling of helplessness – that even celebrities with their massive wealth have no answer.  The Courts manage to voice the same feelings – ‘I can’t count how many times I’ve been outdone by nihilism’ from Tenderness – but as established, they use that moment of mutual understanding, of empathy, to redirect the listener and embolden them to believe in change. It is not obligatory, but in the discussion of music as activism, it certainly inspires a little more optimism.  

Surrounding ‘all good girls go to hell’ , Eilish commented ‘We could stop it, but we’re not going to because everybody’s too lazy’. Once again, the blame lies on the individual and their inaction. This is symptomatic of people feeling jaded and alienated as a consequence of there being no binding movement. Rather than using this as an opportunity to bring people together, initially, she seeks to move blame. The very crux of the issue Davis reflected on in her interview. Eilish isn’t a villain here, and was young when she made these comments, but rather a victim of the very same attitudes she fails to diagnose in those she wished to criticise – of a generation raised into rugged individualism and crushing uncertainty for the future. She simply has not seen another way.  

As a result, the launch of Music Declares, although potentially positive, could be poorly motivated. Their messaging does stress the need for government action – that much has been learned – but what kind of action they want is vague, more just that it is ‘needed’. It feels vague, and still misses desperately needed direction, with their most prominent campaign ‘No music on a dead planet’ focusing on images of extinction and despair, while still weirdly centering the artists as those set to lose out – their livelihood and ability to tour at risk more so than the listener.  

Massive Attack, pioneers of the 90’s trip hop scene, approach the issue somewhat similarly, pledging ‘super low carbon practices’ with suggestions of how artists should move and tour sustainably. Though an admirable practice, it feels lacking in its call for genuine action, and it hands responsibility to the artists themselves rather than questioning how much power the artists themselves genuinely have. Massive Attack’s endeavours are largely, once again, based on the actions of the band alone, which in turn implores listeners to make change solely focused in their own little corner of the world. There’s no push to make broader, structural change when you as a listener just see them, the artist, making just enough personal change such that the show can go on just a little longer. It’s individual action. Again. It feels better, it does, but at its root it clings onto the wrong attitudes, as with Eilish (although it should be noted the merch from Music Declares has the most impressively sustainable-looking supply chain we (the authors) have ever seen). 

This isn’t new, however. Even as far back 1970, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, a song definitely ahead of its time in consciousness on these issues, says ‘Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now’. The line criticises the workers in the agricultural industry for their use of pesticides at a local level, rather than what drove them to using them in the first place – competition over food production to drive profit: attacking individuals, rather than questioning structure, again.

Looking for a New England?  

In Mitchell’s era, at the rise of Thatcher, Billy Bragg shows a striking example of protest as music, encouraging throughout his catalogue the importance of community in action. Most explicitly in his 1986 track, ‘There Is Power In A Union’, Bragg emphasises the merits of unionising and working together, echoing Parquet Courts’ call for the assembly of rebels, teachers, strikers and sweepers. Although not explicitly climate related, it’s Bragg’s approach which is instructive. He stresses collectivism against the rapid atomisation pushed by Thatcher’s reign, a leadership which crushed unions and any collective powers, incentivising individual class mobility, and which caused both worsening climate conditions and the personal accountability approach so often criticised in this article. Bragg’s direct approach, heading straight for the root of the issues that were afflicted by Thatcher, is a spirit that ought to be regained in the coming age of climate music. He wishes to burn away these ideals to their spore, rather than clinging on – to shift the paradigm of thought as to how change is made.  

As climate focussed music continues its drift to the forefront of popular culture, artists with large platforms ought to be careful to convey the right type of message, built upon the right attitudes to encourage the most direct and democratic route out of crisis – led by the people and in their interests. Their spirit should echo Davis’ sentiments of movements gone by, and make their demands clear to people in power, encouraging people to attempt optimism as resistance to the easily alienating surroundings. But this optimism is not unfounded. Even this year, the Kill the Bill protests across the UK demonstrate the value of direct and clear messaging within a movement, and the solidarity quickly built the instant injustice arises – the banning of protest itself may well have revived protest culture. The mask is off. All that is needed now is a way to extend this growing solidarity to an issue more international – to demonstrate through education the similar structural injustices at play, producing these issues. It is needed now: before the water gets too high.

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