Musicians are mouthpieces for social reform.
Music has chronicled, tackled and rallied against social issues for many decades. The biggest societal issue to affect this generation is the climate crisis. Culture, at its core, reflects the issues of our time: in literature, art and music. But has this generation reflected the urgency of the situation in music? In July 2019, The 1975 released a track with climate activist Greta Thunberg which appealed to people’s consciences and urged us to stand up for our planet.
Music was a mouthpiece and catalyst for social reform throughout the 20th century; one only has to look at any great singer-songwriter, to see a catalogue of political and social statements, which became anthems for the voiceless and for the protestors. Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind questions war, law and oppression and suggests the answers are right in front of our eyes. The song was adopted by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and so accurately summed up the injustice of minorities that it inspired Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. In fact, many powerful songs came from the injustices of 1950s/60s America – a personal favourite being Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.
The 1975 were not the only band to address the destruction of our planet – as early as 1970 our musicians have been calling for us to protect and treasure our environment. Singer-songwriter Neil Young penned After the Gold Rush in which he assesses our past, present and future interactions with our world, famously cemented with the line “look at mother nature on the run”. Later, Young revisited his commentary on our anthropological impact in 2003 with Be the Rain in which he calls out the corporations destroying our environment “save the planet for another day, hey big oil what do you say”. In 1971, the Beach Boys diverted from their usual easy-going surfer anthems with Don’t Go Near The Water, where they warned of the darker side to their lifestyle; “the poison floating out to sea now threatens life on land”. Similarly, Marvin Gaye sang “oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas, fish full of mercury”.
In more recent times, April 2019 saw Lil Dicky released Earth, a track with Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and other celebrity features. The charity single donated to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and aimed to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Whilst the intention was there, the tinny audio and perhaps too literal lyrics, missed some of the subtleties of Young or Lennon. Lines like, “we gotta save this planet” and Bieber’s poignant, “hi, I’m a baboon”, combined with a colourful animated music video, were more Dora the Explorer than decade-defining culture, and the song failed to reach a major audience. However, it showed an engagement with the climate crisis from the music industry.
In July 2019, the 1975 released a single from their upcoming record, Notes on a Conditional Form, called The 1975 which was narrated by climate activist Greta Thunberg. The band’s album-opening songs have been consistently named The 1975 across previous albums, and are equally obscure and different from the following tracks. However their most recent instalment is the first to feature a speech; Greta recorded a new speech for the song and her words are put to an ambient lo-fi track. She calls for us to recognise the emergency and acknowledge how pressing the issue is. Although previous generations have failed, she still recognises there is the potential for hope: “all political movements in their present form have failed, but homo sapiens have not yet failed… but unless we recognise the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance”. Greta’s speech is a call to arms. She calls for whole system overhaul, for the accountability of corporations, but also for individual action; “throughout history, all the big changes in society have been started by people at the grassroots.”
The collaboration with Greta Thunberg brought the band into the political sphere, but also opened them up to criticism. Was it all just a publicity stunt? Was it just grabbing onto what was current and boosting their relevance? Some have argued the track is hypocritical; the band are attaching their name to a song rallying for individual responsibility in tackling the global climate issue, yet the band continue to travel by air (a highly polluting industry) and participate in the music industry, responsible for major carbon emissions – 540,000 tonnes in the UK in 2010. The band’s hypocrisy has been brought to the forefront. Lead singer Matt Healy responded to the criticism by saying, “I’d rather not be a hundred percent sorted and be accused of being a hypocrite than do fuck all. I’d much rather be called a champagne socialist than be an artist that isn’t talking about the most pressing issue on the planet.” The response to the track is part of a much bigger “woke culture” issue. There is a modern obsession with perfectionism, and penchant for highlighting flaws in others just for a small hit of personal gratification, this obstructs potential effort. We are so obsessed with finding a flaw or lack of continuity that we ignore the positive actions or effort. The culture of environmental perfection, or nothing, is reflected in the slow progress and the lack of loud voices in the debate – if people are afraid of speaking out about our planet in fear of slight hypocrisy or perfection, it narrows the voices in debate and stops engagement with the issue. The climate situation is at a critical point and activists should not be berated for slight inconsistencies, but rather applauded for their dedication.
So although The 1975 are not zero waste, vegan, recycling activists: they are still allowed to talk about climate change. They are not environmentally perfect, however they are drawing mainstream attention to a global and pressing issue and are bringing the climate crisis into culture and art and that should be commended. They fly on commercial airlines and use recycled t-shirts and their effort should be applauded rather than their flaws highlighted. Frontman Healy called Greta the best punk he had ever met. Climate activists are the modern day rebels, Greta is rallying us to cause disturbance and shout for our rights as the earth’s time is running out. “So everyone out there, it is time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.”