Is there such a thing as a sustainable song? Will the music industry ‘go green’ at some point in time? And what surprises do environmental song lists have in store?

My head is full of music. My head is an inchoate, swirling archive of songs. And my inner media player likes to pick out old tracks and send them mercilessly through my consciousness – not constantly, but frighteningly often. Without being asked to. Relentlessly. They can be favourites from my youth, current hits or long forgotten one-hit-wonders that I have come across again by chance. But sometimes they are horrible earworms that I just can’t get rid of. My inner media player rarely plays these songs linearly and completely, from beginning to end. Usually it is always the same part of a stanza, always the same intro, the same chorus or the same instrumental part, again and again, sometimes combined with other parts of the same song, sometimes with parts of completely different songs, which suddenly come into play because my consciousness associatively links similar harmonies and melody arcs. Thought mash-ups, so to speak. The songs that go through my head keep me company and push me through the day. Yes, they energize me. And as songs that can’t be heard, don’t leave a CO2 footprint in the world, but still generate this kind of energy, the songs in my head are sustainable in the best sense of the word.

I like the idea – it gives the term ‘evergreen’ a whole new meaning. And yet this thought is completely absurd. Because at some point in time the songs in my head were actually heard, and they might ring out again and again in the future. And, much more importantly: At some point in time these songs were also produced in a recording studio, for hours, days, sometimes weeks and months. In the process, oh dear, power was endlessly consumed, while armies of artists, sound engineers and record company people produced all kinds of trash, from dented beer cans and plastic dishes to the plastic packaging of the fast food delivery services. Chemically powerful pressing and burning plants ran hot in order to technically reproduce the musical works of art, paper and ink was used for record covers and booklets, millions upon millions of sheets of foil were used for vinyl releases and plastic CD covers. Not to mention the CO2 emissions which the continuous streaming of these songs caused and continues to cause every day. In fact, it took me awhile to understand why streaming music, movies and series can be so damaging to the environment. It is, of course, the enormous energy consumption that goes along with the distribution of artwork in digital form via gigantic servers.

Environmental awareness is increasing in the music industry

So should less music be produced and even less music be heard? Heavens no! We need music, we need every form of art, it is an important elixir of life and democracy. But the world of music with everything that goes with it – from the production, release, and distribution of songs to the organisation of concert events and our fan behaviour – could be much more sustainable. Promising approaches have, of course, long been apparent. For example, if you enter the keywords “sustainable recording studios” into Internet search engines, you will already find some music production facilities that have designed their studios with sustainable materials, use ‘green’ electricity, conduct their business in cooperation with sustainable banks or compensate unavoidable emissions by supporting climate projects. The superstars of Coldplay, for their part, announced at the end of last year that they would not be touring around the world for the time being – and that they won’t do so until they can make this kind of tour sustainable.

Good for Coldplay, but perhaps even now the band could have asked for advice from the Green Music Initiative. The Berlin-based organisation of artists, environmental associations, research institutes and business decision-makers publishes frightening figures on the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and has been working for a decade to make the music business greener. The use of renewable energy sources, sustainable packaging, the avoidance of paper-intensive PR work, electronic ticketing, regional catering, waste reduction strategies, sustainable merchandising, and clever mobility concepts for bands’ travel and for fans’ travel to and from concerts are just a few of the many aspects that the Green Music Initiative touts through collaborations, projects and information campaigns to significantly reduce the music industry’s CO2 emissions. Some legendary festivals, from Roskilde to Wacken, are already orienting themselves towards sustainability criteria and are being supported by initiatives and agencies with the necessary know-how.

Green music production: For example Fré

Artists are also actively helping. In addition to Coldplay, there are other acts that are committed to going green and trying to base their music on the principles of sustainability. One of these is Fré, which is taking a unique approach: The Dutch-German art-pop-jazz quartet produced their 2017 debut album Nature’s Songs in the most environmentally friendly way possible at the Fattoria Music Studios in Osnabrück, Germany, and they made sure to use recycled materials for packaging. The album’s titles – Grains of Sand, Trees, Bees, The Moon, The Sea, Raindrops, or Ice – also revolve around the beauties and idiosyncrasies of nature. Unfortunately, the idea of developing a sustainable music product together with the “Green Office” of the Dutch Wageningen University as part of a master course was not implementable. But nevertheless, the four artists continued on their journey towards sustainability. “So for our new album, WE RISE When We Lift Each Other Up, we took it into our own hands and made a couple of decisions to improve our ecological footprint while still being able to take part in the music industry”, Frederike Berendsen says. Frederike is songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist of the band. What she means is “an artwork out of 100% recycled paper that includes a download code instead of a CD or vinyl. So it is also about the shift to digital, without completely throwing out the beauty and sentiment of physical artwork. We also decided to limit the number of physical albums and to sell them ourselves to avoid the plastic wrapping that is required by distributors and marketplaces like Amazon. The same goes for our merchandise items, which are made with high quality, biodegradable/recyclable materials, and fair-trade production. We also chose to produce merch items that reduce the use of disposables such as plastic bags and bottles (refillable stainless-steel thermos flasks and organic cotton tote bags). “All in all”, Frederike says, “it is our way of raising awareness and acting responsibly in the industry we work in.” All this commitment to sustainability should, however, not distract from the fact that Fré does actually make fantastic music.

Fré also made us aware of the exciting “Green Vinyl Records” project, an association of eight Dutch companies that are developing a process for producing vinyl-like records – except that the records are not made of vinyl, but from more environmentally-friendly materials and that the injection-based manufacturing process uses much less energy. Not only Fré finds the approach promising and wishes it every success in the future.

CO2 footprints on Earth, motivating footprints on the backsides of the fans

The fact that artists, event organisers, and even industry managers are thinking about their own actions is relatively new – a development that has only come about in recent years. But rock, pop, soul, and jazz songwriters in particular have been voicing their awareness of environmental issues for decades. And so thousands of songs have left not only a substantial CO2 footprint on our planet, but also powerfully motivating footprints on the backsides of the fans. Something along the lines of: Get off your backside, do something against pollution! Save the planet! Take a stand against oil drilling and the deforestation of the rainforest, against fracking, mining, the overexploitation of natural resources, against nuclear power and plastic waste, acid rain, the pollution of the ocean!

“Environmental songs”, “climate change songs”, “Earth Day songs” or “environmental playlist” – the keywords under which they can be found are numerous: best-of- and near-complete-lists of songs that deal with or purport to deal with environmental and sustainability issues. Sometimes these songs are not clear cut, mixing eco-topics with social criticism and a general tirade against capitalism and human greed. But often they formulate simple appeals like ‘Save the Planet’ (Edgar Winter’s White Trash, 1971) or focus on a specific environmental issue (Crosby and Nash, To the Last Whale, 1975).

Here are a few peculiarities that caught my
attention while browsing through the lists:

Early environmental songs in a pop context can be
found in the blues as early as 1927, for example with Bessie Smith (Backwater
) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (Rising High Water Blues). They
lament what happens when the Mississippi River overflows its banks after heavy
rains and makes many people, especially poor people, homeless. Southern blues
interpreters of the 1920s to 40s also sing about the boll weevil, a pest that
became a real plague and caused major economic crises.

There is a nice anecdote about Motown label boss Berry Gordy, who thought Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), a song by soul superstar Marvin Gaye from 1971, was not marketable. At that time, the meaning of the word ‘ecology’ had to be painstakingly explained to Gordy. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) became one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest successes, despite all the prophecies of doom.

‘Repeat offenders’ when it comes to environmental song writing are Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Adrian Belew, Bruce Cockburn, Midnight Oil, or Neil Young, to name only the most well-known.

Artists one wouldn’t expect “environmental songs” from are the surf icons The Beach Boys (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1971), heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne (Revelation/Mother Earth, 1980) or pop princess Miley Cyrus (Wake Up America, 2008).

One of the most bizarre environmental songs surely is The Return of the Giant Hogweed. The song by the British art-rock band Genesis, once again from 1971, tells the story of the giant hogweed, a plant species that a Victorian researcher is said to have brought back from Russia to England, where it overgrew everything and threatened the native flora and fauna. In the best tradition of Brit-Goth-oddballs, Genesis turn the “ecological damage caused by introduced species” narrative into a tale of revenge and horror which also gets out of hand musically.

Perhaps the largest subgenre of environmental songs, and almost a genre of its very own, the anti-nuclear songs extend from the effects of nuclear power all the way to the danger and consequences of a nuclear war. The grotesque piece Burli, published in 1987 by the Austrian satire band Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung, revolves around a disabled boy whose deformities result from the proximity of his home to a nuclear power plant. In Red Skies Over Paradise, the British band Fischer Z describes the outbreak of a nuclear war in 1981. Two of many examples from the “No Nukes” universe.

One of my favourite environmental songs, I’m embarrassed to admit, is Karl der Käfer (Karl the Beetle), published in 1983 by Gänsehaut. The band originated from the Cologne German rock formation Satin Whale. Their protagonists, who looked like progressive headteachers, were music editors. So they actually knew how to write. And yet lines like these seem a bit awkward, especially with hindsight: “Karl hasn’t been here for a long time / There’s no place for animals anymore / Where Karl used to be at home / Beetles made of sheet metal and steel are now driving / Karl the beetle wasn’t asked / He was simply chased away.

One of the most visionary environmental songs is … Karl the Beetle by Gänsehaut! Of all the endangered species, the band focused their attention on the beetle in 1983. Today, almost 40 years later, everyone is talking about The Great Insect Dying.

One environmental song people debate about is Love
Song to the Earth
from 2015, released for the Paris Climate Change
Conference, which brings together superstars such as Paul McCartney, Sheryl
Crow, Bon Jovi, Natasha Bedingfield, Fergie, and Leona Lewis to sing about the
beauty of nature in a catchy power ballad. In the accompanying glossy video,
some of the stars pose in white clothing (white = peace?) on dream beaches and
in idyllic natural settings – the proceeds went to the UN Foundation and
Friends of the Earth. What some people celebrated as successfully addressing mainstream
audiences, others found very corny and hardly convincing. If you ask around
among your friends today, who still remembers the song, you’ll get more
furrowed brows and shoulder shrugs than nods and sparkling eyes.

Environmental songs that are easily misunderstood are Vamos a la playa (1983) by Righeira and The Future’s So Bright (1986) by Timbuk 3. Vamos a la playa isn’t actually celebrating a relaxed holiday mood, but is conjuring up a nuclear war scenario on the beach; and The Future’s So Bright isn’t really describing rosy prospects, but a nuclear-irradiated future in which you have to protect more than just your eyes (“The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades”).

The most direct lin to the “Fridays for Future” movement was made in 2019 by the indie rockers of The 1975: In the track by the same name (The 1975), they underlaid a stirring monologue by climate activist Greta Thunberg with hypnotic ambient sounds and promised to donate the proceeds from the song to the organisation Extinction Rebellion. It was quite counterproductive that their co-founder Roger Hallam had recently shocked the supporters of the movement that relies on civil disobedience by relativising the Holocaust and spouting other radical views.

Converting well-known songs into environmental songs can often backfire. The old partisan- and antifa tune Bella ciao has already had to endure some musical abuse, most recently its senseless reprocessing as a dancefloor favourite for urban partygoers. The climate protection version Do It Now – Sing for the Climate, which was realized in 2012 with people from 180 Belgian cities, gave the melody a little more gravitas, but came across as very heavy-handed and, in its collective sentimentalism, it bore the marks of mass manipulation. As the environmental song Etwas tun (Doing something), marketed primarily in the context of childcare facilities, Bella ciao leaves many a music fan at a loss: Is this really still pedagogically valuable education or is it already a coldly calculated, soulless business transaction?

At the end of last year, the rewriting of the classic German children’s song Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad (My grandma rides a motorbike in the henhouse) within the framework of a production with the WDR children’s choir was a fatal error. Before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’, the team from the WDR (a public broadcasting institution) had turned the quirky grandmother of the original song, who boasts the funniest and smartest inventions but above all invites you to light-heartedly sing along, into an “environmental sow”. The whole thing was intended to be satirical – but whether it was aimed at an older generation that was supposedly resistant to advice, or even at the young “Fridays for Future” movement, which for its part had made unfortunate and disparaging remarks about this older generation, wasn’t entirely clear. The totally unsuccessful song project mobilised understandably offended senior citizens, but also angry right-wingers and propagandists against the WDR, which promptly distanced itself from the song and from its own staff, which in turn led to massive criticism from media experts. A communications meltdown of the first order.

In contrast, how cool and casual is the British primary school project during which, in the summer of 2019, a teacher from West Suffolk and his pupils re-wrote the lyrics to Gil Scott-Heron’s classic protest song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which revolves around the topic of sustainability. The original, a poem set to music from around 1970, calls on African Americans to rebel against a consumer- and media world dominated by white people. The school project applied the basic ideas to topics such as global warming, fast fashion companies, plastic waste, extinction of species, and disenchantment with politics – all in the context of social media. Even the famous filmmaker and naturalist Sir David Attenborough was impressed with the result, The Extinction Will Not Be Televised.

Environmental songs which – when you listen carefully – aren’t environmental songs at all, turn up even in the best-curated lists. Michael Jackson’s Earth Song stands out most prominently in this context: The lyrics revolve around a crying earth, but the reasons for this are battlefields and “killing fields”, “the blood we shed” and “children dead from war”. It is about “apathy drowning in the seas” and the Promised Land that you will not reach. That really sounds more like an anti-war song than an environmental song.

Doctor, My Eyes by Jackson Browne is also frequently mentioned, but here too one must look for a specific reference to climate protection issues. The lyrics of the song, which was released in 1972, deal very generally with a desperate person who confides in a doctor because he has seen too many bad things in his life. In short: a song about the feeling of being totally burnt out. No trace of environmental destruction.

Godzilla is the name of a 1977 hit by the US rockers Blue Öyster Cult. Sure, the lyrics say: “History shows again and again / How nature points up the folly of man”, but that’s due more to the Godzilla myth, which characterises the monster as an atomic mutation. Blue Öyster Cult essentially relish describing how the giant lizard rages in the streets of Tokyo and, in the best of moods, pay homage to a fantasy film icon. So with all due respect to their many great songs, it would be a bit much to assume that the musicians were highlighting their commitment to climate protection with this song.

Look at the person in the mirror!

Speaking of Michael Jackson and supposed environmental songs: Man in the Mirror, the 1988 hit of the “King of Pop”, sometimes also appears in “environmental playlists”. It’s not at all about climate protection, but specifically about humanitarian commitment – about working for the poor and the hungry of the world, the homeless in the streets of the big cities. The video expands the subject matter to include racism and dictatorship. Nevertheless, the song formulates a message that can easily be applied to the climate problem: “I’m gonna make a change … I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” In other words, commitment doesn’t mean pointing the finger at others or just getting politicians to act. No, commitment means starting with yourself on a small scale. In short: with the person you see in the mirror every day.