‘Things aint what they used to be’ (Marvin Gaye: Mercy Mercy Me)
It’s a common refrain. Love is the thing of pop music and lost love is even better. Marvin Gaye isn’t singing about break ups though, but channelling the anguish of ecocide: ‘Poison is the wind that blows/…oil wasted on the oceans/ and upon the sea/ fish full of mercury’. Written in 1970 from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, Gaye exhorts us to look around and laments, soulfully, for what he finds. The lyrics offer no help, just a catalogue of environmental degradation. Hope is found in the strings and his vocal delivery: cover versions just don’t have the same power.
‘I saw above me that endless skyway / I saw below me that golden valley / This land was made for you and me’ (Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land)
Things aint what they used to be. In 1940 Woody Guthrie blamed private property in a song that would become part of the ‘Great American songbook’ despite its Marxist lyrics. It’s also an exhortation to care for the land: if you care for the land then you care for the environment. If you care for that, then you care for nature by default, whether it comes sugared in American jingoism or not. It’s a hopeful song, and the idea that the land is a sort of utopia spoilt by private property is charmingly naïve, but with a grain of truth. In the thirty years between this and Gaye, pollution was invented, it seems.
Nature proliferates. Adapts. Evolves. This song has taken a life of its own, covered by pretty much everyone, and unlike Marvin Gaye’s, it improves with the different interpretations, such as Neil Young’s, Springsteen’s and Billy Bragg’s Great British version. Though possibly not Johnny Cash’s.
‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ (Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi)
The obvious one, perhaps. Also from 1970 and also a hit, this song is one of the most famous environmentally themed songs, mostly for its upfront lyrics. Is there another (good) song with lyrics about DDT? It was written eight years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first brought DDT usage into the spotlight and only two years before it was banned, adding to the snowballing public concern about pesticides. It’s also one of the few pop songs with a specific activist concern.
I actually prefer her song The River and its couplet: ‘its coming on Christmas / they’re chopping down trees’. The simple, stark juxtaposition between celebration and destruction is one I find subtly powerful.
Rise Against: Ready To Fall
Punk actually standing for things? That hasn’t happened since The Clash. I can’t actually decipher the lyrics to tell if Rise Against are different, but the video makes the environmental point with a fist-pumping earnestness.
‘Drape yourself in greenery, become part of the scenery’ (British Sea Power: North Hanging Rock)
British Sea Power remind me of the Romantic poets in their unabashed celebration of nature as a primal, intoxicating force. This song has a freshness to it like a sea-breeze, and an expansive sound, gradually climaxing in sublime noise. The lyrics are quite simple: ‘drape yourself…’ reminds me of an earlier song in which they sing ‘it starts with love of foliage, and ends in camouflage’. Anyone who writes lyrics like that stands a good chance of earning my enduring fandom: the birdsong over the intro seals the deal for me.
Pop is meant to be disposable, shallow, superficial, unit-shifting medium: the very antithesis of what modern environmental thought approves of. There’s a delicious irony then in the form subverted to spread a message contra to that embodied by its existence. These five songs are just a sample that is unashamedly biased towards those I actually like, feel free to correct any oversights in the comment section.