Musicians have been writing songs about climate change for years, now. Grimes recently described her forthcoming album, Miss_Anthropocene, as ‘a concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate change’. Bjork gave us Biophillia in 2011, which explored the future of the climate and technology. Anonhi’s song ‘4 Degrees’ paints a picture of the apocalyptic nightmare four degrees of warming would wreak upon humanity, all the while managing to garner over 1.5 million views on YouTube for being catchy as well as topical. Yet, despite the artistic merit of these works and their relative success, music about climate change has still failed to break in to the most pervasive sphere of our collective music culture: mainstream pop.
That is, perhaps, until now. L’il Dicky’s ‘Earth’, released with much fanfare last month, is not the first pop song in which an orgiastic array of contemporary pop stars have attempted, however vaguely, to compel action on climate change. In 2015 the rapper Sean Paul teamed up with Paul McCartney, Leona Lewis, Fergie, Nicole Scherzinger, Bon Jovi and a few unfortunate others to create the atrociously bad ‘Love Song to the Earth’. The video is unbelievable in its sheer predictability, like a parody of itself: Paul McCartney in a white, flowing shirt, walking barefoot in the shallows of an empty beach (interspersed, of course, with dramatic shots of the Grand Canyon, waterfalls and Natasha Bedingfield in yet more white drapery). Naturally, it flopped. However, the same cannot be said for ‘Earth’.
Granted, it’s not exactly a hit. It has peaked at 17 in the US charts and 21 in the UK (although it has reached number 3 in Canada, its highest global rating). Still, it makes history as the most popular song with an environmental issue at its core since Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’. The trouble is that while ‘Love Song for the Earth’ was clichéd and saccharine and off-puttingly preachy, it was never offensive or misleading. ‘Earth’, on the other hand, packs almost as much ignorance and egotism into its seven-minute video as it does pop stars.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the song’s central conceit: the ramrodding of the singers into the animated bodies of myriad animals and organisms, each of whom sings a self-descriptive line about the creature they embody. If anything it allowed L’il Dicky to cram in more pop stars and, by proxy, twist the arms of dozens of different fan bases that wouldn’t normally listen to his music into doing so. The song itself isn’t even bad, per se. It’s generic, sure, but far worse songs have topped the charts and cemented themselves in our cultural canon. Rather, the problem with the song is that while it attempts to educate and inspire its listeners into calling for action on climate change, all it achieves is the spreading of dangerous myths, flippant prophecies and offensively tone-deaf statements about the rest of the world. L’il Dicky’s status as a “comedic” rapper doesn’t forgive that.
Take, for example, the calls for global unity at the end of the second verse. Without a shred of irony this American rapper supported by predominantly American singers calls upon everyone else to come together, despite the fact the USA remains the only country to have announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement:
‘We love you India
We love you Africa
We love the Chinese
We forgive you Germany’
While attempting to incite global unity L’il Dicky proceeds to ‘forgive’ Germany for its historical wrongdoings, as if the nation’s debt for American salvation can never be paid and is appropriate to bring up when attempting to stoke international agreement. Particularly, it seems, on an issue where Germany has promised far more action than the USA ever has.
Another instance of Dicky’s astute analysis of climate change geopolitics comes at the song’s conclusion, where anthropomorphic-baboon Justin Bieber sings: ‘Are we gonna die?’ To which Dicky replies: ‘You know what Bieber, we might die, I’m not gonna lie to ya. I mean there are so many people out there who don’t believe global warming is a real thing’. If by ‘out there’ Dicky means America and by ‘people’ he means Republicans, then I suppose he has a point. But politicians in nearly every other country across the globe overwhelmingly believe in climate science. Conversely, the USA has, for decades, been the biggest thorn in the side of global action on climate change. Of course, other countries need to act, too. But few more desperately and more decisively than America itself.
Furthermore, Dicky’s accompanying videos that attempt to enlighten the viewer to the causes of and solutions to climate change — which, by the way, have garnered a mere fraction of the views of the music video — make Dicky himself seem so wilfully misinformed about the subject it seems bizarre he ever decided to champion it. The videos are so simplistic you might think they were for children, but considering they are rife with swearing and the music video itself peppered with mentions of guy’s cumming and weed getting you ‘fucked up’, I think it’s fairly safe to say they are not the intended audience. But if not them, then who? The intellectual contradictions made in the videos — i.e calling for less meat consumption while extolling the deliciousness of a philly cheese steak — are so blatantly obvious even a child would feel insulted, never mind an adult. At one point Dicky asks ‘What is a fossil fuel?’ while staring gormlessly off-camera. Evidently, Dicky knows what a fossil fuel is; his idiocy appears to be an act that aims to educate the small sliver of the population old enough to listen to songs about ejaculation but too young to have learned about climate change (so, nobody).
I know, I know. It’s a pop song; it’s not that serious. Hey, maybe Dicky should be given credit for at least trying to engage with the subject. The profits are going to charity, after all: Leonardo Dicaprio’s One Earth foundation to be specific. Besides, why does a pop song need to confront climate change, anyway?
Well, because our music reflects who we are and the times we live in.
The longest living, most universally loved pop songs contain true sentiments expressed simply, sincerely and without a footnote that impels the listener to sign a petition or check out a website. Their meaning, their message, is seamlessly conveyed and believed without the person listening even realising it. We play these songs everywhere — in the supermarket, in the car, at our desks at work — and, whether we like it or not, they become part of our landscapes. Their lyrics infiltrate our minds and stay there, sometimes forever. And so while it may be true that pop music on its own isn’t going to cut CO2 emissions or impel governments to invest in renewable energy, it is does have the power to normalise the vitally important sentiments that will drastically change our lifestyles. It has the power to imbue respect for our environment into our oftentimes-mundane, everyday existence.
Maybe in the future,someone will write a pop song that neatly expresses the sense of anxiety, fear and hope that comes with tackling climate change in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we’re being preached to. Nor, as L’il Dickie has done, in a way that so facetiously reduces the subject to a series of juvenile jokes while simultaneously spewing an egotistical sense of American exceptionalism. There’s no shortage of great songwriters whose work is both mainstream and successful, for some reason they just haven’t turned their minds to tackling the most important issue of our generation yet.
Perhaps it is true that pop music can never change the world on its own. But as numerous anthems about women’s liberation and civil rights and LGBT equality show, they can certainly give us something to dance to, to drive us, as we fight for the changes necessary for our survival.