So goes Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’, from 2000 album Kid A. An album that Rolling Stone ranked as the best of the noughties, an album which, upon release, charted at number 1 in the UK, the US, Canada, France, and Ireland. An album which demonstrated the potential profitability of discussing climate change, 19 whole years ago.
And yet today, climate change is a topic in music so scarce that when Fatboy Slim samples Greta Thunberg, it makes news, and trends on social media.
If Fatboy Slim demonstrably profited from sampling Greta Thunberg, then we’d have to query whether, and the ethics of, a musician exploiting not only a political activist, but a teenager. As it stands, Slim hasn’t really made any efforts to, nor released any official version of the mash-up, and so it just seems like he tried to make himself a bit of a meme. It got his name in the press for a little bit, so if free publicity was what he was after, he sure got it.
It isn’t the only musical rendition of her, however, given the death metal edit of her famous UN speech. With lyrics like ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction’, it fits the genre well.
This edit has been monetised and released as a single, ‘How Dare You’, under Despotz Records; but all profits go directly to Greenpeace. The only musician Thunberg has, at this point, actually collaborated with is The 1975, on self-titled single ‘The 1975’; the leading track from their upcoming album.
Musically, it’s a fairly bold statement to open an album with a 5-minute monologue on the climate crisis; so much for the impactful opening track. A track that, when ‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ is released, will be skipped on every listen.
This is perhaps more a commentary on us as an audience than The 1975 as musicians, though an attempt to wrap Thunberg’s message in a more attractive, enticing package could have been made. The track currently holds 600,000 views on Youtube; contrasted with the 2.8million of second single, ‘People’, the 20million of ‘TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME’ from last year, or even the 50million views racked up by 2016’s ‘The Sound’.
The debate as to whether Thunberg should be used as a mascot or a figurehead, regardless of her own agency, is a wider debate that isn’t to be commented on in an article about music. Despite that, massive props to the teenage girl using her voice to project an essential message on the state of our planet into the earphones of millions.
What makes these three songs unique, though, is not that they use Thunberg’s voice. It’s that they are in the minute minority of songs that talk about climate change. It was listening to these, that it begged the question:
Where is all the protest music?
It sounds like such an ‘edgy teen’ thing to say, but given the way the world has gone to shit recently, you’d have thought that musicians – given their platform, and an unrivalled direct ability to disseminate a message – would be discussing the topic that dominates global political discourse.
The only response we really have is the Music Declares Emergency group; a collective of musicians, producers, and labels that aim to call for governmental action. The list isn’t bristling with huge names, though notable inclusions include Massive Attack, The XX, IDLES, and Yannis Philippakis (though strangely, not the rest of Foals). The group, as of yet, just exists. They haven’t forwarded a motion or put forth a campaign. They simply exist as a symbolic presence of climate care amongst musicians and bands. It is not yet enough; but at least it’s something; a small step in the right direction.
So, what is it? Do artists just feel that it’s not worth talking about? Do commercial pressures demand they avoid the topic?
I cannot argue that no one has done anything. There was, of course, ‘Earth’; the Lil Dicky-led collab from April only this year, that literally everyone forgot about. With huge features from Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Miley Cyrus to name a few.
With a little over 100,000,000 streams on Spotify, it can’t exactly be called a failure; despite its peak at only 17 on the US charts. But perhaps it was this, a song that didn’t do incredibly – regardless of its immense star power – that killed climate change on the music market. After all, if a ‘song’ featuring the largest popstars in the world couldn’t outsell a song about being Chris Brown for the day (also by Lil Dicky); what incentive does the rest of pop have to try and cash in?
Not that the song really tried. Supposedly trying to unite the world over shared love for our planet, the song was made difficult to use publicly or on air due to its non family-friendly nature. Not to mention that Lil Dicky took Justin Bieber, who at this point hadn’t made music since 2017, and had him open the track with:
“Hi, I’m a baboon
I’m like a man
Just less advanced
And my anus is huge”
For the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, there were small performances from Disclosure, and Declan McKenna – credit to them – but honestly, the most achingly infuriating thing is the response that the election could rouse, with no similar widespread response for climate activism. #Grime4Corbyn. JME interviewed JC. Rag’n’Bone Man publicly endorsing Labour. Christ, Wolf Alice performed a gig at a ‘Tories Out’ march.
Across the lake, even Taylor Swift – of all people – endorsed the Democratic Party. The older musicians who cut their teeth criticising those in power, like Eminem, Green Day, Rage Against the Machine, now fall silent on the issue.
As it stands, you’d have thought the more politicised genres at the very least – punk hip-hop, grime – could have benefited in a big way. And yet, there is a noted lack of popular artists of these genres even attempting to capitalise on the low-hanging fruit for inspiration; our warming planet.
[Image credit: Foals’ Twitter]