Environmentalism in Popular Music

Kenneth Jeon

Music has had an inclination towards the concept of nature for almost its entire history, but in the past few decades, artists have begun exploring a specific aspect surrounding nature: its preservation. Following rising concerns about the exploitation of natural resources, popular music has similarly seen the theme of environmentalism come into the forefront of musical subject matters. But musical environmentalism has never stayed the same; the way artists have approached the topic has shifted in accordance to various political focuses and attitudes over the decades.
If expressing admiration for nature counts as environmentalism, there are countless examples far older than anything from the past century, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to songs from ancient Egyptian songs honoring various gods. But in regards to recent history, it wasn’t until the social movements of the 1960s that artists brought a widely identifiable political edge to popular music, channeling this broad artistic love of nature into a definitive and defiant rallying cry.
While not yet quite as fearful of climate change phenomena like melting ice caps and the greenhouse effect, society in the 1950s and 60s still had its own apocalyptic worries to confront, with mid-century fear of nuclear annihilation quite literally seeped into the subject of environmentalism. As a result of nuclear testing, traces of radioactive isotope Strontium 90 were making their way into the air and water, inspiring songs like “What Have They Done to the Rain” by Malvina Reynolds and “Mack the Bomb” by Pete Seeger.
As time passed, artists branched out into a variety of different environmental issues, as it was cool to be political. Even the happy-go-lucky Beach Boys, after years of glorifying California beaches, decided to open their 1971 album “Surf’s Up” with the track “Don’t Go Near the Water,” a song about the chemical contamination of waterways.
Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in particular foreshadowed the rising trend of juxtaposing elements of nature to signifiers of consumerism, something that would become very common in the 1980s, the decade often remembered exactly for its indulgence in consumerism and materialism. Mitchell’s lyrics, “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot,” mirror those of David Byrne in his 1988 satire, (Nothing But) Flowers: If this is paradise / I wish I had a lawnmower.”
The 1980s increasing demand of more intense genres like metal and hardcore punk also helped bring in a more direct, aggressive tone to environmentalism, something that would last into the 1990s. While usually not directly aimed at issues surrounding the environment, hip-hop took on a similar spirit, using its signature confrontational tone to address relevant political topics.
Today, with near daily reminders about the quickly declining state of the Earth on the news, it’s no surprise environmentalist music now seems to have taken a darker, bleaker turn, especially in the more alternative, independent genres. Artists like Radiohead, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and Bon Iver detail the instinctive dread that accompanies the catastrophic consequences of climate change, closely relating these fears to social class struggles. A pervasive pessimism has largely replaced implicit calls to action. The calls to action that remain are instead about political revolutions, with King Gizzard going so far as to detail a heightened story of upper-class migration to Mars in their latest project, “Infest the Rat’s Nest.”
Of course, more mainstream genres have also seen this theme arise with certain artists. Certainty of the apocalypse is prevalent in several albums from rapper Kendrick Lamar, who openly discusses both in and out of his music about his predictions of violent rebellion after peaking global frustrations. Childish Gambino’s “Feels like Summer” talks about rising temperatures, subversively using the traditional summer pop sound much in the same way as the Beach Boys, but this time going beyond unsettling hints and full forming the raw, oppressive nature of heat through music. More than anything, modern music seems to approach the topic of the environment with fear and existentialism, accepting climate change is dominating problematic presence in the near future.