Words and art by Margaret Chingos
What’s a song that you can’t help but sing along to?
Don’t pretend you don’t have one. Everyone has their hype-up songs and cry-to songs and guilty-pleasure-breakup songs. We share these because music speaks to all of us.
Music is beautiful because of this collective nature. It is deeply personal, and yet meant to be shared. And loudly at that. This paradox is what makes music so moving in trying times.
The environmental movement is a perfect example of such a time. By looking at songs from throughout the environmental movement, we can gain a more meaningful perspective on how our relationship with the planet has evolved over the past 50 years.
As we venture through the history of climate activist music, I encourage you to listen to the songs as you read.
1970s – Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell
Our journey starts in the 1970s, with Joni Mitchell’s hit Big Yellow Taxi, a song that can only be defined as a ‘moment’.
Joni released the song on the heels of the first ever Earth Day, propelling the environmental movement to the forefront of mainstream media and garnering widespread support.
The song’s popularity can be attributed to its perfect portrayal of public sentiments at the time. The lyrics are a call to action, cautioning that ‘don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Despite this grave warning, the song maintains a lighthearted tone with lively strumming and vocals. The juxtaposition displays the energy and optimism that only a young movement can possess.
It almost makes you sad. The naivety of simple metaphors and innocent pleas to ‘put away the DDT now’ really makes you believe the planet can be saved. But unfortunately, this is only the beginning of our journey.
1980s – Throwing Stones, Grateful Dead
By the 1980s, initial attempts to improve the environment were going south, marked by the Chernobyl disaster and a hole in the ozone layer. Discontent and urgency were setting in.
To understand the raging discontent, we need look no further than the Grateful Dead. Their 1987 release, Throwing Stones, is about holding institutions accountable for their messes.
The title is an allusion to the proverb ‘people who live in glass houses should not throw stones’ and is later used to point a finger at the ‘politicians throwing stones’ in a call to shift responsibility for the climate from individuals to institutions.
Along with its political statements, the song contains an eerie undertone. Its chorus repeats ‘ashes, ashes all fall down’ in reference to the nursery rhyme ‘ring around the Rosie.’ The rhyme’s playful sound conceals its deadly connotation as a story about the black plague. The song takes on a similar character, an upbeat jam that contains a grim warning under the surface.
1990s – Gaia, James Taylor
In the 1990s, frustration turned to lamentation. While world leaders were stuck in negotiations, consumption soared at staggering rates. People mourned as the planet’s fate slowly took shape.
This is the landscape in which James Taylor produced his 1996 ballad that captures contradicting love and grief for the planet, Gaia.
Taylor expresses his love by placing his faith in the planet. As a part of his album Hourglass that was once called ‘spirituals for agnostics,’ Taylor calls to ‘pray for the forest, pray for the tree.’ However, the song prays to no god. Instead, Taylor entrusts his hope to Gaia, the powerful force of nature.
This could be interpreted as optimism; if we love the planet, it will right itself. But sadly, in the end even Taylor is wary, calling himself a ‘poor wretched unbeliever.’ The final return to melancholy is an emblem of the sorrow felt after watching 20 years of insufficient action for the planet.
As we turn to the present moment, we are faced with stark realities. Our songs and prayers have not solved the crisis. The weather is warming, and oceans are rising, and the collective human consciousness is preoccupied with a pressing question: what on Earth do we do now?
In the face of this question, perspectives presented in the music industry have proliferated as musicians have been prompted to look inward and reconcile their own relationship with the earth.
For Weyes Blood, the climate crisis brought personal reflection. Her song Something to Believe is both doomed and daring as she explores her climate anxiety, which she describes as ‘living on a fault line.’ The song confesses that she ‘didn’t always do it right, might have left the heat on high’ which highlights the personal responsibility we all share to take care of the planet.
However, the same crisis prompted Andrew Bird to search for understanding externally. His song Manifest questions our ‘claim to this frontier’ as he grapples with our notion of dominance over nature that has brought us to ‘the brink of a great disaster.’ He looks to cultural norms to explain how we have created such a mess.
I wish the story these five songs told was a more uplifting one. I wish Big Yellow Taxi lived up to its optimistic promise, and that Throwing Stones taught a lesson of accountability. But the reality is that music cannot be made responsible for saving the world. Chords cannot cut carbon emissions, but governments can.
I am beyond grateful for the solace of music, but simply listening to it is not enough. We must lift our voices above the riffs and melodies and into the real world, calling for action with the same conviction as the music taught us.
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