Did we figure out how to make good ‘climate pop’ songs in 2021?

If we had to play the game of “say something nice” about 2021, we could say this: There was a lot to pay attention to! Not a dull year. So you would be forgiven for missing the fact that the traditionally staid and challenging topic of climate change showed up in a rather unexpected place: pop music. The type of artists who frequent Coachella and Lollapalooza attempted to make our crushing state of global uncertainty into – well, if not bangers, then at the very least something you could sing along to. An endeavor, to say the least!  

Climate change may seem like an odd choice of musical inspiration, but this trend has actually been a long, gradual time coming. In the last several years, a growing roster of musicians have attempted to convey this particular existential crisis in their work. In 2016, there were the Iceberg Songs, a collection of tracks, funded by the climate change division of the United Nations, that consisted of the sounds of melting and crashing icebergs. “Icarus in Flight,” a piece of chamber music composed by Richard Fetsinger and premiered in 2018, translates climate data such as carbon emissions and land use into musical notes and progressions. 

And then, veering a little bit more mainstream, world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming released an album of songs about climate change earlier this year that the New Yorker described as “more about awe than admonishment.” (Note: this is hardly the first time opera has used global warming as a source of artistic inspiration.) And there is more classical climate music to come: The Bangor Symphony Orchestra in Maine announced the premier of a work called “The Warming Sea” in the spring of next year. 

But these are all relatively niche genres. What about pop music, the stuff of the masses? My colleague Miyo McGinn wrote in 2019 about what seemed to be some stirring of a “climate pop” genre, where Billie Eilish, Grimes, and Lana del Rey all worked allusions to hotter atmospheres and rising seas into their songs. This year, artists from Ariana Grande to Bootsy Collins released music referencing the climate crisis, in forms both oblique and overt.

So what would make such a track… good? Rather than rely solely on my own sensibilities, I asked pop musicologist Nathaniel Sloan for his insight. He said that the success of a pop song in general is tied to its ability to convey “a specific emotion in a way that will be universally understood,” particularly when its “musical choices reinforce the lyrical message, in ways that can range from the obvious to the subtle.” The unique challenge of making a truly good pop song about climate change, he added, is that “it’s more difficult to connect to the climate crisis on a personal, emotional level” than, say, breakups or drug abuse. And when you veer too far into preachiness, you have completely lost the point.

I would venture that another marker of pop success – although not in isolation – is whether the music itself is enjoyable and sticks with you. And there were more than a few climate-related songs in 2021 that fit the bill. With all of this in mind, here is our non-comprehensive analysis of the ones we deemed most representative of the budding genre.

Just Look Up (Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi)

This Disney-esque disaster ballad is performed in the film Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s new film that is meant to be a satirical portrayal of the climate crisis. I can only assume that it is meant to exist within the fictional universe of that film. In said universe, there is a meteor hurtling toward Earth and no one will do anything to address it. 

The duet is a cross between a love song and a warning of impending doom. Which, when you think about it: Isn’t that any love song? However, when Grande sings: “Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists/We really fucked it up, fucked it up this time” and “Turn off that shit Box News/’Cause you’re about to die soon everybody,” you sort of long for the standard subtlety of her past hits, like this line from “Wit It This Chrismas”: Are you down for some of these milk and cookies?

Does it get stuck in your head? Yes, all morning. But so has “Wit It This Christmas.”

Are you happy about it? I’ve had worse.

Fallen Fruit (Lorde)

My colleague Emily Pontecorvo reviewed Lorde’s long-awaited third album Solar Power when it was released at the tail end of August – sort of odd timing for a 14-song ode to summer lightness. Listening to the titular track, Emily had yearned for “??a chorus into which to channel all of my climate-related grief, frustration, and hope,” but did not find it. 

What she – and everyone else anticipating some climate anthems from the New Zealander songstress – did find on the album was much less galvanizing material, a series of sort of mournful meditations on escaping a fatally flawed world. But the one track that stands out, at least for our purposes, is “Fallen Fruit,” in which Lorde sort of eulogizes the wasteful generations that have come before us. The line “We had no idea the dreams we had were far too big” is particularly evocative, and really gets at the human tragedy of climate change in a way that more overt references don’t do so well.

Does it get stuck in your head? No.

Are you happy about it? I think if it were stuck in my head I would feel pretty melancholy.

The Children Will Rise Up (Nandi Bushell and Roman Morello)

What can you really say about a song written and performed by children? Are you able to critique it without being an asshole? I am 32 and I can’t write a song, so who am I to judge the musical stylings of someone a third of my age? To that end, here are the nice things I can say: It seems that Rage Against the Machine frontman Tom Morello’s 10-year-old son, Roman, is intimidatingly good at guitar; the drummer and singer, 11-year-old TikTok star Nandi Bushell, possesses a forceful and charismatic presence, and I like her choice of armbands. And even though the opening lines – “They let the earth bleed to feed their filthy greed/stop polluting politicians, poisoning for profit” – are more than a little preachy, they really do get to the heart of the issue.

However, the bizarre looming presence of ebullient actor/musician Jack Black and Tom Morello throughout the accompanying video produces a vibe that, ultimately, is more “aging rock dads approve of children playing sick riffs” than “this is a compelling song about an unprecedented existential threat.” And the Inconvenient Truth-esque presentation on the science of climate change that follows the music video seems to gild the lily, for all its earnestness.

Does this get stuck in my head: Yes.

Am I happy about it? Hmmm.

Music4ClimateJustice (Bootsy Collins, Steven van Zandt, Chew Fu)

I really do not enjoy funk music and in that respect do not feel that I can be a good judge of it, so I turned to someone who does: My father. Upon listening to the snippet of the song, he said, “Honey, we don’t have a lot to go on here.” 

We are allowed merely a minute-ish preview of this song, because the full version can only be obtained by purchasing an NFT of the song, which is meant to benefit the Music4ClimateJustice nonprofit. On principle, I don’t want to engage with this form of art distribution, but I couldn’t anyway because it is sold out. According to Rolling Stone, much of the song is made up of “a dizzying guitar solo” by Van Zandt, but in the preview we are mostly entreated to Bootsy Collins muttering about “Mother Earth giving birth.”

My dad says that “funk songs have to be listened to a lot before you really like them,” and since you cannot listen to this one even once without purchasing it, I guess we will never know whether my dad would like it or not. (I am confident I would not.)

Here’s just one tiny little complaint to consider. If you recognize climate change as an issue that’s at least somewhat wrapped up in economic inequality and lack of access, perhaps releasing it in such a limited and exclusive fashion – even to benefit an aspect of the cause! – is not the move.

Does this get stuck in my head: No, thank god.

Am I happy about it? See above.

Honorable Mention: Blue Banisters (Lana del Rey)

We’ve added this song here because, although it is not overtly about climate change, our warming world appears in such vivid, intimate detail that it sticks in the mind and haunts you: 

I said, “I’m scared of the Santa Clarita Fires, I wish that it would rain”

I said, “The power of us three can bring absolutely anything

Except that one thing, the diamonds, the rust, and the rain

The thing that washes away the pain”

Del Ray goes on to paint a picture of simple bucolic joy – cake-baking and porch-painting and chickens. All of which seems to suggest that, yes, even if the Santa Clarita fires burn, life will continue and happiness will still be found.

Does this get stuck in my head: Yes, but probably because I have listened to it 150 times (a conservative estimate) since it came out.

Am I happy about it? Yes! I like fantasizing that I am a dreamy prairie wife-poetess.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Did we figure out how to make good ‘climate pop’ songs in 2021? on Dec 17, 2021.

Updated: December 17, 2021 — 6:45 pm

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