The Sound of Resilience

Joseph is the name three singing sisters from Oregon/USA have given themselves. They have released four albums with unique and timeless songs that range from atmospheric folk music to power pop with a hint of rock – the latest is called The Sun and is about mindfulness, resilience and healing.

„I thought I was the light switch you turned on / But I am the sun.” Bang! Finally, lyrics that stick with you. Striking, clunky and inspiring in the best sense of the word. They are by the American band Joseph and can be heard in The Sun, the title track of Joseph’s fourth album which was released in the spring of 2023. In The Sun, a person frees themselves from the bonds of a seemingly healthy relationship and begins to shine. The person in the song thought that their constantly depressed mood was “normal” and looked for faults only in themselves, without realizing that the other person in the relationship was primarily concerned with feeling superior: „Well, you wanted me small / So you could feel like someone at all / And I played along / And normalized, telling myself I was wrong.“ But now something has changed. Suddenly, “Feeling good doesn’t feel bad anymore” and the unfair game stops: “I’m done playing a game that can’t be won.” The motif of the light switch that crops up in the main lyrics seems strange, but was chosen deliberately: It accentuates not just the artificial glow that the person in the song has long taken for granted, but also being instrumentalized and used. The person in the song now knows that they are not just some switch the other person pulls to create an artificial glow – they are a star shining brightly on their own!

Of course the assumption is that this song is primarily about a romantic relationship. But the lyrics are kept so general that the dynamics described can also be applied to other relation-ships: those between children and parents, between team members and supervisors, or more generally, between members of a group. And anyone who has gradually grown tired of euphoric self-assertiveness hits like Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Cher’s Strong Enough or I’m Still Standing by Elton John, might discover an understated alternative in the hymnal-optimistic Joseph song The Sun.

What makes the song worth listening to, aside from the pointed lyrics and captivating melody, is the soulful performance and the unusual people behind it. Joseph is a trio that is already somewhat well-known in the United States, but tends to fly under the radar in the rest of the world. They are the twin sisters Allison and Meegan Closner and their half-sister Natalie Closner-Schepman, who is four years older. Together, they bring harmonies to the stage which are almost indescribable and which only such an unconventional group of sisters can pull off. And we’re not talking about clinical perfection, i.e. an artfully smooth but ultimately soulless fusion of voices, but a very special overall sound that each singer enriches with individual nuances. Natalie Closner-Schepman isn’t just a vocalist, but also “the one with the guitar” and the spokesperson in interviews. She originally tried her hand as a solo singer-songwriter and then, when things weren’t taking off, persuaded the no less talented Meegan and Allison to join her in a band. The name of the trio? Well, Joseph is a town in Oregon, the state the three are from, and Joseph was the name of their beloved grandfather – sometimes it can be that simple and down-to-earth. For almost a decade the soulful sisters have been offering up everything from atmospheric folk music to power pop, while effortlessly integrating elements of country and rock, but without allowing themselves to be pinned down to a specific genre. What they do has a timeless quality. Their music is so rich with beguiling melodies, unusual harmonies and great lyrics, their performance so charismatic, that Joseph should have been superstars long ago. But they aren’t. They are probably just … too idiosyncratic.

It starts with the way they present themselves. They usually go onstage seemingly without make-up and in casual clothes. And when they do “dress up” it looks more old-fashioned, like grandma’s birthday or a school prom, than in the style of “real” pop stars. There are flashes of rock glamour here and there, but on the whole you can’t help but get the impression that these sisters are just having fun, perhaps even self-deprecatingly putting on something of a show so they can ultimately focus on the only thing they really want to do: go out and sing.

This is why, although there are a few “official videos” of the trio’s songs, these seldom seem to be lavishly produced and, it must be said, are also rarely very riveting. Much more exciting are the countless live or unplugged clips of Joseph circulating on the internet: The three women can be seen standing somewhere in the countryside, in cramped studios or in auditoriums, stores or libraries, performing their songs in a raw lo-fi sound. Sometimes they seem so immersed in their music that you find yourself holding your breath, even when watching them on your device. As a result, the ending of every Joseph song on the sometimes lavishly arranged studio albums with a band line-up – which are well worth listening to – is properly composed, i.e. it never fades out. Joseph’s songs are self-contained compositions for live performances – they get to the point in every respect.

Yes, I can really rave about this band. But from all the exceptional characteristics described above, it’s easy to circle back to songs like The Sun. Because just like the person in this song frees themselves from negative influences and begins to shine from within, the band’s development and approach also reflects its will to resist, above all to remain true to itself, to avoid artificiality, even self-deception and to not betray its own artistic aspirations. In interviews, Joseph talks openly about insecurities, self-doubt and fears, about a family dynamic that was not always harmonious, about successes, difficult partnerships and failures – and about personal development, for which they also sought therapeutic help.

Some earlier songs were, in fact, already about intense relationship work, self-assertiveness and empowerment. The 2023 album The Sun now documents a re-emergence of the band and is almost entirely about “more-ness”, as the protagonists call it: about recognizing that you are “more” than you think you are – and even more than what society, your personal environment and your partner want to reduce you to. So the ten songs on the album are something like the sound of resilience, with unusual lyrics like the following, which come from the constantly rising and falling song Waves Crash: „There’s no need to define / How I measure up next to anyone / Or how well I stayed in the lines / I’m a tall, tall tree reaching up in the breeze / All I have to do is breathe / I’m a limb of goodness in motion / (…) / You wouldn’t tell the flower it was made of sin / You know it’s good just for being / What if, what if I’m not made of sin? / What if, what if I’m lightning?“ No, life isn’t about comparing yourself to others and fitting in. It’s about existing freely – like a tree or a flower, as a natural being, without guilt and with good intentions. Wow, that makes you sit up and take notice again. But it’s a disarming perspective. With a surprising final question: “What if I am lightning?”

Mindfulness, resilience, empowerment – these are the buzzwords of our time. Many pop stars use them too, especially female ones. But what American stars in particular are selling as “female empowerment” isn’t always convincing: Some stars who are living in the lap of luxury thanks to countless hits in the charts, and who have unlimited financial resources, suggest that you can simultaneously be a superstar, successful pop entrepreneur, sex symbol and a perfect mother, too. Other stars present themselves as especially tough and independent, but try to conceal the fact that their crude lyrics and glamorous looks, which have been enhanced by cosmetic interventions, fuel entire industries – and, even more, fulfil the expectations of heterosexual men. This all sells well, but creates ideal images which are questionable, if not downright unattainable – and which ultimately widen the gap between female artists and fans.

The Closner sisters, on the other hand, are neither models, nor are they desperately trying to be so. They seem to be focused only on their songwriting, authentic, approachable, sometimes weird and vulnerable. They interact on equal footing with their audience. This low-key, almost “normal” approach and the ultimately too complex messages are probably what have prevented them from achieving international stardom so far, even though songs like White Flag reached number one in the billboard-“Adult Alternative Airplay”-charts in October 2016. “Burn the white flag!” goes the rousing chorus. And of course it’s all about not surrendering. However, the opponents are neither personal or political enemies nor any sinister villains, but the skeptical voices and the fear of failure that prevent you from doing what you actually want to do.

In Fighter, a similarly catchy song from 2019, Joseph put their very own spin on a common theme of self-assertiveness. Contrary to all pop conventions, here it’s not the person in the song who is celebrating themselves as an uncompromising fighter for survival. No, the narrator has been fighting for love for a long time, but now also demands that the other person does not retreat, but is just as committed to fighting to save the relationship: „Don’t keep yourself from me (…) Don’t lie this time / I need a fighter / You’re my bright side / I want it brighter / Don’t leave me in the dark.“ In turn, lyrics like this tie in with Canyon, an irresistible power pop song in which the person in the song prepares to finally get closer to their counterpart, characterized as a country, a mine and an ocean. But this counterpart is so closed off and, figuratively speaking, so “far away” that even a few centimeters distance seems like an unbridgeable canyon: „Can’t get, I can’t get / Can’t get close enough to be close to you / Can’t get, I can’t get there / An inch is a canyon.“ Never getting close enough to really be able to talk about closeness – that sounds like heavy emotional labor.

Which brings us to that key word ‘love’. Yes, love is also an important topic for Joseph – as a central element in families and partnerships, but also as a driving universal force. However, in their deep dive into this universal force, the three avoid throwing around overly naïve and kitschy phrases like “All you need is love” or “Love is the answer”. On the contrary: The person in the song Love Is Flowing, also from the current album The Sun, is realistic – they feel pain, see suffering, but feel powerless and can’t help: „Something’s burning / But I can’t reach it / Phantom limb on fire / Someone’s hurting / But I can’t fix it / And I don’t know how to try.“ Even all-encompassing love, of whose existence and constant flow the person in the song is at least convinced, cannot really be felt, let alone channeled into something that benefits all people. But there is a longing for an entry point, and that at least gives us hope: „Love is flowing, love is flowing, love is flowing, love is flowing / And I wanna get in it.“ The bubbling rhythm and gently undulating vocal line visualize this inspiring river, which one wishes would eventually permeate everyone and everything. These are bittersweet lyrics. They are neither flirtatious nor pretentious. Just apt.

We live in turbulent times. The pandemic, wars and political crises have changed the world, depressing news every day, certainties are dissolving. And one often gets the impression that the people in ones own personal circle are behaving differently, more unpredictably than before. In times like these, bands like Joseph with songs like Fighter, Canyon, The Sun or Love Is Flowing don’t only provide support and comfort, but also energy and confidence. Pop as therapy – for the artists and for the audience.

English translation: Ursula Schoenberg

A Guy Called Pink

In the mid-70s, Pink Floyd released Have A Cigar, a song criticizing the music industry and its scummy managers. Today, some of those historic fronts have dissolved while others have shifted significantly. And some heroes from back then aren’t what they used to be.

“Oh, by the way, which one (of you) is Pink?” We’re in the 70s, Have A Cigar by Pink Floyd is playing as usual. And like every time this song gets played, you are captivated by the heavy, almost metallic-sounding groove that the band is unleashing here within the context of a state-of-the-art studio production, as well as by the rather aloof-sounding vocals. But when the singer mentions a part of the band’s name yet again, you start to wonder. Asking about someone called Pink in a song by the British art rock band Pink Floyd of all things? That’s weird. At some point you also start to analyze the lyrics. And you realize that it is precisely this question about the band member called Pink which proves that the song’s narrator is a hypocritical ignoramus – and which reveals the lyrics’ unusual narrative situation.

Have A Cigar was released in 1975 on the LP Wish You Were Here and has the characteristics of a dramatic monologue. This lyrical form of presentation differs from the classic monologue in that the narrator is speaking within a very specific communicative or dialogic situation. Although the other person is not quoted at all, their presence can be felt: Because they are being addressed directly or because one of their comments is being responded to. The lyrics thus don’t mirror a soliloquy, but rather the monologue of a central character which has been detached from a stage drama. The great dramatic monologues of literary history are often gripping because the narrator is in a unique, emotionally charged situation and is allowing the audience to participate in an evolutionary or decision-making process. This can also lead to surprising revelations, or even self-revelations. Of course, the lyrics of Have A Cigar are far too short and compact to cover such an exceptional range of content – and yet Pink Floyd’s lyrics and vocal act in the mid-70s go significantly beyond what garrulous songwriters usually produce in pop songs.

The narrator of the piece is clearly a music manager who – in an arrogantly avuncular manner and with suggestive rhetoric – is trying to persuade a talented young musician and his band to make a deal. First he entices and impresses the artist with cigars, a symbol of success-oriented machismo and big-wiggery, then he promises him the moon. He says the “boy” – and with him his bandmates – are destined for success: “Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar. / You’re gonna go far / You’re gonna fly high, / You’re never gonna die, / You’re gonna make it, if you try. / They’re gonna love you.” However, as the lyrics progress it becomes increasingly clear that the manager is not seriously interested in either the musician or his music: “Well, I’ve always had a deep respect, / And I mean that most sincere”, he flatters and emphasizes how wonderful he thinks the group he wants to sign is: “The band is just fantastic, / That is really what I think.” It’s all so over the top that it’s hard to believe. And then the manager asks the cringey question that finally outs him as an unempathetic wheeler-dealer: “Oh, by the way, which one is Pink?” Of course, we can assume that the “authors” of the song are also addressing themselves here. And anyone who is even slightly interested in Pink Floyd will definitely know that there is no band member with the first name Pink – that the band name is in fact made up of the first names of the blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. So our brash manager put his foot in his mouth – without even realizing it.

Worse still, in the chorus that follows he cheerfully admits that he and the company he works for are just playing a game centered around money: “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy? / We call it riding the gravy train.” By now the narrator has revealed himself to be a representative of an ice-cold, profit-hungry music business that only assesses people and artistic achievements according to their market value and is exactly the opposite of “sincere”, namely insincere and dishonest. Against this backdrop, the machine-like groove and the “windy”, slightly drugged-up vocals make even more sense – cue the cliché of fat decision-makers in the music industry who are busy doing coke and think they are star-creators, or to put it more mundanely: the greatest, i.e. gods. What is fascinating in this context is that the manager’s speech also sheds light on the construct of the rock brand “Pink Floyd”: It is not only able to stand for many other bands, it can also easily take on the role of an extra in its own song.

Have A Cigar is one of two songs on Wish You Were Here that explicitly criticize the music industry, the other is called Welcome to the Machine. And if you take this criticism as the central theme of the album, then the accompanying cover- and postcard designs, which at the time we fans simply found spectacularly surreal and somehow cool, also send clear messages: There is the man in a suit in flames, to whom another man in a suit is holding out his hand – as if he is literally being burned by closing a deal. There is the person whose bare legs are sticking straight out of the water of an almost mirror-smooth lake – a deceptively beautiful image for gleaming illusions in which the human being seems to be just an appendage, or also for the insignificance of human activity, because the person in the picture is not making any waves. There are the two machine hands that, once again, come together for a contractual handshake. And there is the faceless man with a bowler hat and briefcase, reminiscent of figures by René Magritte, who is trying to sell records to fans somewhere in the desert. All iconic images of rock culture. And maybe the casting of the vocal part of Have A Cigar was also a tiny sign of rebellion: Because the wonderfully crazy voice of the song’s sly narrator is not supplied by a Pink Floyd member, but by folk singer Roy Harper. During the production of Wish You Were Here he happened to be recording in a neighboring studio and ended up stepping in, either because the band vocalists who were supposed to do it couldn’t do it properly, or because they simply didn’t want to. In any case, this was also not quite what the record bosses were expecting from their “cash cow” Pink Floyd.

In fact, the gentlemen at the head of the record company were less than enthusiastic about the cover designs and song messages on the Wish You Were Here album. The latter have long been seen as the band’s reaction to the pressure created by the worldwide success of the previous Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). “We need a follow-up album that is at least as successful as this one”, is what the record company’s expectation is said to have been. And Pink Floyd didn’t want that. It is almost ironic that they ultimately fulfilled this expectation and that Wish You Were Here is now a frontrunner in various lists of the best albums of all time. Just like the fact that the band did end up introducing a guy called Pink into their universe just a few years after Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar. We are, of course, talking about the fictional protagonist of the 1979 concept album The Wall: This Pink is definitely not a grinning hero, but a musician plagued by psychosis – but that is almost obvious.

Songs like Have A Cigar harken back to a time when the boisterous rock-n-roll of the 1950s and 60s had gradually come of age. Rock music had matured and become a profitable global business which produced saturated superstars – so much so that it was in danger of betraying its old ideals. It was a time when large record companies dominated the rules of the game and charismatic managers such as Brian Epstein (The Beatles) or Thomas Andrew “Colonel Tom” Parker (Elvis Presley) controlled the fortunes of “their” artists. Even the counter-movements of punk and new wave produced similarly enigmatic figures, who are also referred to as “Svengalis” after a sinister behind-the-scenes protagonist from George du Maurier’s horror story Trilby (1894) – think Malcolm McLaren (The Sex Pistols) and Bill Drummond (Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes). No question: In the 1970s and 80s, being a serious fan meant cultivating a healthy mistrust of the mainstream and the major labels, combined with a passion for the underground bands and independent labels that were springing up like mushrooms. Of course, there was nothing wrong with still listening to idiosyncratic rock dinosaurs like Pink Floyd in the privacy of your own room – after all, nobody needed to know.

Big record companies and management gurus on the one side, brave indie creators on the other – this juxtaposition seemed to be set in stone and to offer a sense of direction designed to last forever. But then came digitalization, the internet and social media – and suddenly nothing was the way it used to be. Historic fronts dissolved and unprecedented opportunities arose for today’s musical artists. At the same time, new images of ‘the enemy’ emerged. Today, we look back at bands like the Arctic Monkeys and stars like Billie Eilish who became famous not with the help of a major record company, but rather through the internet, and who have long since successfully enjoyed a lot of artistic freedom. We celebrate independent starlets and stars, but also superstars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé – the latter runs a kind of family music empire with her husband Jay-Z.

And we lionize phenomena like Taylor Swift, a megastar personality whose success across all analogue and digital platforms has almost managed to create a significant industry of her very own. Once dependent on labels that marketed her first albums without her, Swift regained control by simply covering her own early albums, i.e. by re-recording them with slight changes and then marketing them herself. Today, she is dictating terms to providers such as Apple Music and breaking all attendance records with her tours. Which leads us to a flipside of today’s music industry, the streaming services. Because they pay artists showcasing their work on these platforms negligible royalties, which means that only the industry’s top stars can actually earn any kind of money there. And that, in turn, pits the smaller artists against the top earners. Yes, the times they are a’ changing – and so are the historic fronts. So much so that the chasm between successful and unsuccessful, between rich and poor, is almost greater today than it was in the 70s, that era of industry-criticizing titans such as Pink Floyd and their ilk.

So what has become of the “good old” cigar-smoking record bosses and the egocentric Svengalis of yesteryear? They have simply disappeared. Or, except in the case of casted test-tube acts, they have become almost irrelevant. It’s true that there are still things that artists have professionals manage for them – from bookings to studio rentals, from accounting and legal advice to video shootings. But in stark contrast to 30 or 40 years ago the stars of today, including a pleasantly large number of women, very often have a high degree of control over their work and actions. Nobody would write a song like Have A Cigar these days. And to be honest, by and large some artists from back then aren’t what they used to be. In fact, the members of Pink Floyd have been at odds for years. And Roger Waters, something of a band leader and globally feted social critic in the 70s, is facing headline-grabbing police investigations and attempts to ban him from performing in 2023 because of weird pro-Putin statements and the irritating integration of anti-Semitic symbols into his stage performances.

This article first appeared in the „LyrikLINES“ series on the ‘Faust-Kultur’ portal

English translation: Ursula Schoenberg

A Star Is Torn

A legendary, tragic love story set in the rock-n-roll milieu for a change? Or a cool rock-n-roll epos that incorporates elements of a tragic love story? Daisy Jones & The Six, the bestselling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, works on both levels, infusing everything with a nice shot of 70s nostalgia while perpetuating the eternal trope that great art is born mainly from pain and suffering. Although the film version of the glamorous rock star fiction as an Amazon Prime series makes a few dramaturgical modifications, it is a more than congenial reincarnation of the original book – and it gives the world the music album of a group that doesn’t even exist.

The 70s are over: Daisy Jones & The Six have made it – they are globally celebrated rock stars. But at the very height of their career, the band breaks up. Fans are stunned. How could it have come to this? Many years later, the estranged band members and some of their confidantes are interviewed separately for a documentary. All the little comments, anecdotes and sometimes contradictory reckonings morph into abundant flashbacks – the rise and fall of a brilliant band unfolds, including the true reasons behind the break-up. Only at the end does it become clear who is conducting the enlightening interviews. It’s a heart-warming revelation with a surprising twist.

From romantic fiction to hit series to chart success

For decades, feature films were the ‘non plus ultra’ when it came to telling stories for the big screen and on screens of all kinds. But contrary to all assertions about our fast-paced times and continually shrinking attentions spans, the opulent series format has been gaining ground for some time now. It offers the chance of letting a story unfold believably and in several narrative threads, of giving characters depth, and of exploring all the positive and negative dynamics between the protagonists. It seems hard to believe, but fans stay engaged, even for six to ten episodes and even for several seasons – if a series is done well. This is also true of pop biopics and -stories. In spite of their entertainment value, several 90- to 120-minute movies have already suffered from the fact that the script had to be limited to a few central topics, and that a band just seen playing rather amateurishly in a run-down provincial club is next seen being celebrated by a large festival audience, only to show its ultimate demise soon after.

The makers of the Amazon Prime series Daisy Jones & The Six have not only benefited from the strengths of the series format, but have also thoroughly exploited the marketing potential of the original, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s successful book by the same name. A clever dramatization, captivating cast and polished performance have allowed them to create a gripping series that you can immerse yourself in for almost ten hours. And instead of a conventional soundtrack album with different artists contributing the songs, they have actually brought the fictional Daisy-Jones-&-The-Six album Aurora to life. As a result, the fictional group and their songs are in the international charts, like a real rock performance.

Fleetwood Mac (and others) send their regards

Two narrative threads initially emerge from the flashbacks. There are the Dunne Brothers, a band led by the sometimes authoritarian frontman Billy Dunne, who are trying to gain a foothold somewhere in Pennsylvania, mostly with cover versions. And then there’s Daisy Jones in Los Angeles, an unconventional young woman surviving through odd jobs, but who is secretly dreaming of a career as a singer-songwriter. The story gains traction when Daisy comes to the attention of the renowned but no longer quite so successful music producer Teddy Price, who takes her under his wing. Meanwhile, the Dunne Brothers undergo several transformations and finally welcome keyboardist Karen Sirko as a new member. The band renames themselves The Six, write more and more original songs and eventually move to L.A. to take the next step in their career. It is more by coincidence that the quirky group, which is increasingly getting its act together, meets Teddy Price. And that’s not all: The Six also manage to convince the influential studio wizard of the merits of their songs. But the producer feels there is something lacking – maybe some lyrical input, plus a strong female voice. And because Daisy Jones is also lacking something, namely a band capable of channeling her lyrical and musical ideas in even more artistically fruitful directions, Teddy Price immediately connects the two groups. And tells them to write new songs together. An inspired move that triggers an unprecedented success story – but also hopeless emotional chaos.

Anyone familiar with the dynamics in rock bands will have one or two moments of déjà vu – there are plenty of well-observed details and band anecdotes to make you smile. Anyone who knows what the music business was like then and now will probably shake their head about powerful and smug corporate record bosses in suits, as well as about shrewd producer and shrill manager types. Anyone who lived through the 70s will definitely be overcome by nostalgia, because the fashions and lifestyle are so aptly captured – even if you don’t have to have experienced every sex and drug escapade yourself. Anyone who likes Fleetwood Mac and their music during the Rumours era will be agog, because the sound, appearance and one or two biographical details of Daisy Jones & The Six were inspired by the legendary British-American band. And even if you just like larger-than-life love stories with euphoric ups and tragic downs, you will enjoy this.

Billy Dunne and Daisy Jones are two extraordinary, not entirely lovable characters – damaged souls who put each other, but also everyone around them, through a lot. The two of them often fight, but hardly anyone fails to notice that they are also powerfully attracted to one another. Billy has a young daughter with his wife Camila. She sees the band as a close-knit family and acts like an uber-motherly arbitrator where needed. But she too must come to terms with the fact that Billy sometimes succumbs to the destructive rock-n-roll lifestyle, becomes addicted to alcohol, and takes a long time to grow into his role as a father after rehab. She certainly doesn’t like the vibes she feels later, when she sees her husband and Daisy Jones performing together. And she too messes up. In addition, there are peaceful moments of happiness and intoxicating highs, a long-secret affair within the band, fellow musicians who suffer from a lack of appreciation, frustrations and crises, including Daisy taking a temporary break in Greece. And then there is also – cue Almost Famous – the journalist from an influential rock magazine who accompanies the rapidly rising stars on tour to score a big story. The gossip and secrets he gleans from the torn band members, independently of each other, just add fuel to the fire. Only the drummer – whose naïve insouciance is reminiscent of the notoriously underrated Beatle Ringo Starr – remains completely unscathed. He actually meets an attractive Hollywood actress, starts a family with her and, one may assume, lives happily ever after. What a wonderful pop cliché – a character who provides regular ‘comic relief’ and enriches the dramatic narrative with a dash of self-irony.

The female perspective

Where rock dramas written by men like to focus on the rock-n-roll lifestyle and highlight their protagonists as torn but ultimately brilliant lonesome-hero-types, Daisy Jones & The Six deliberately focuses on other aspects: For example, the problematic effects that this rock-n-roll lifestyle and the struggle between two alpha males has on the protagonists and everyone around them. The main characters are subtly drawn, with great strengths but glaring weaknesses, too. Daisy, Camila and keyboardist Karen are three self-confident women. On the one hand they are asserting themselves in the male-dominated rock world. However, the societal conditions and attitudes of the time also have a uniquely negative impact on them. For example, it is the women who have to deal with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy and the possible consequences for their careers. It is painful but good that we also see how the previously ‘cool’ frontman Billy Dunne initially can’t hold his little daughter and commit to being a father. Although Daisy Jones shows him a totally new side of himself, he always remains lovingly connected to his wife Camila. It’s complicated. And this is where the female author’s perspective clearly shines through – as well as that of producer Reese Witherspoon, already known for her strong female role as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.

Brilliant cast

Just as strong is the impression that Kiley Reough leaves when depicting Daisy Jones. Elvis Presley’s granddaughter galvanizes the audience with her powerful facial expressions, gestures and body language. After various appearances in movies and series, this energy-laden role should help her make her final breakthrough. Her presence alone makes it worth streaming. But the rest of the cast is also impressive, above all The Hunger Games beau Sam Claflin as the often in demand and overwhelmed frontman Billy Dunne. Of the stars playing the band, Suki Waterhouse stands out as the determined, uncompromising keyboardist Karen Sirko. In addition, Tom Wright dazzles as the clever, sensitive producer Teddy Price and Timothy Olyphant (who once played the somewhat rigid sheriff in the famous Western series Deadwood or the bald killer Hitman) shines as the crazy but ultimately professional, suitably empathetic tour manager Rod Reyes.

The casting of the two main characters also proves to be a stroke of luck when it comes to the music. Both stars can actually sing, with Sam Claflin having a slightly more subtle voice that occasionally sounds like Tom Petty, and Riley Keough’s performance seemingly effortlessly invoking Fleetwood Mac diva Stevie Nicks, Kate Pierson from the B 52s and one or two other country music icons. It sounds surprisingly strong and full when Claflin and Keough sing in harmony and bring the songs from the fictional album Aurora to life. In the book, author Taylor Jenkins Reid had written a few of her own lyrics to the band’s songs. However, she admits frankly that they didn’t count for much, but were intended more to describe the characters. With Reid’s consent, the series producers then brought in real songwriting luminaries, including Phoebe Bridgers, Marcus Mumford and even superstar Jackson Browne. The experts were given a fairly free hand and provided the music, including new lyrics, for the songs sung by Claflin and Keough.

The new song versions are very clearly designed to convey emotional intensity and, above all, to get to the heart of the characters’ internal conflicts and interpersonal disputes. Summarization, dramatization and modernization – similar effects are also achieved through dramaturgical modifications to the original book: For example, Camila and Billy have several children in the book, but only one daughter in the series. Camila doesn’t have an affair in the book, but she does in the series. And while Daisy is only called Daisy in the book, in the series she is allowed to tell Billy that her real name is Margaret – a moment that creates a special intimacy between the two characters for the first time. Showrunner Scott Neustadter says that keyboardist Karen is no longer American in the series, but British, as an explicit homage to the recently deceased Fleetwood Mac keyboardist Christine McVie. On the other hand, Daisy’s friend Simone, a soul singer and aspiring disco star, is depicted in the series as having a happy lesbian relationship after various ups and downs, in homage to the queer movement. And unlike in the book, when Daisy overdoses she is saved by Billy – who else!

Ingenious pastiche or: Art is born from empathy

Almost more than in the book, the series adaptation suggests that great art comes primarily from friction, pain and suffering. Some of the best moments in the series are the scenes where Daisy and Billy compose music and write lyrics together. They bicker at each other, repeatedly criticize the other one’s lyrics and force each other to navel-gaze. In the process, these seemingly fundamentally different characters realize that they have more in common in their pain and unfulfilled longings than they would like. And they are already writing bittersweet lyrics like: “If you’re gonna let me down, let me down easy”, “I’m an echo in your shadow / I’m in too deep” or “We can make a good thing bad”. “A lot of suffering, more excellent songs” – that’s the principle, and of course it has already been roughly mapped out in things like Fleetwood Mac’s band history. The group was famous for tricky relationships and complicated interpersonal dynamics which are said to have been the driving force behind some of their best songs.

The trope of “great art from great pain” is still often advanced today and routinely underpinned by references to Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, Joseph Beuys and Hermann Nitsch. This includes ideas such as: Positive feelings only need to be enjoyed, negative feelings need to be processed – which is why the latter provide additional and more interesting material for creating art. All of this may apply to some creatives and their work, but can’t be generalized. It also would be somewhat unfair towards songs like Happy, Walking On Sunshine, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Don’t Worry – Be Happy and other evergreens of bliss. They don’t seem to be born out of great pain, not in the slightest, and yet they have undeniable artistic merit, at least for the author of these lines. Last but not least, the Daisy Jones novel itself and – even more so – the series adaptation can be cited as evidence of further sources of inspiration for great art. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid is simply incredibly talented, as she has proven in her previous books. Then she had her next idea, but first she had to do a lot of research – on music and songwriting, on the biographies of famous bands and on the 70s in general. Her love of writing and perfecting, but also a lot of patience, ultimately led to a captivating story about the power of love and the power of music. The creators of the series and the fictional album Aurora, which has in turn become music, took an even more meta approach as part of a large-scale ensemble production. They shaped and supplemented the literary original with a great deal of brainpower and skill, set a professional film production machine in motion and simultaneously commissioned suitable songs. The result is an ingenious pastiche about a couple of 70s rock stars who create great art from great suffering. Not very likely that the series’ creators and their service providers have themselves suffered congenially.

English translation: Ursula Schoenberg

A Scotsman in New York

David Byrnes‘ wonderful book “How Music Works

Although David Byrnes‘ book “How Music Works” was published eight years ago, I have only just discovered and read it. Luckily, this blog allows me to cover whatever topic I want and whenever I want to, so here we go! The 2012 treatise by Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne doesn’t go into what music does to an audience (as the German title “Wie Musik wirkt” spuriously suggests), but is a collection of musings on the nature of music, on the conditions in which it is produced, on the role of the artist’s personality in its creation and on the role of music in society.

This sounds very abstract at first and, I readily admit, also aroused reservations in me. But these reservations quickly dissipated when I read the book. Why? Because David Byrne writes in a very entertaining way and periodically inserts snide remarks; because his writing is precise and to the point; because he shares fascinating facts; and – above all – because he gives really illuminating insights into his work with the Talking Heads and other world-class artists. This is not an intellectual who is pontificating from his ivory tower, nor a narcissistic self-proclaimed genius, but a creative cosmopolitan blessed with lots of humor and subtle irony who, in a completely unpretentious way, is talking about his work, his history, and his fulfilling experiences with good music, be it rock, jazz, wave or Latin, classical or pop music, ritual, improvised or AI-generated music, individual songs or songs commissioned for musical productions. Of course you can read between the lines which types of music, artistic personalities and trends in the music business he likes and dislikes – but Byrne always proves himself a gentleman and treats the phenomena and people he writes about with open-mindedness and respect, and sometimes with a meaningful wink.

Fortunately, anyone expecting pretentious post-structuralist, Marxist or other observations colored by ideology will be just as disappointed in this book as an audience hoping for sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories, anecdotes from the American post-punk scene or embarrassing confessions from Byrnes’ private life. Byrne is far too sceptical of rockisms or tortured geniuses and has become much too much of a musical polymath during his creative journey to concern himself with this kind of tabloid stuff. He certainly had a lot of fun in the “rock circus”, as anyone who cares to can glean from the book; but above all he was (and still is) interested in discovering and exploring, in constantly experiencing new things, in implementing ideas and in having control over his own artistic activities.

Thus we learn how music worked in archaic communities and how it developed into a product over the centuries; how the places and contexts in which music is performed determine its nature; or how artists can only ever work with the tools and resources at their disposal – from their own talent, to the technologies available to them, to the people accompanying them on their journey. Of course, Byrne does not deny that individual skills and intuition play a role in making music – and yet he makes it vividly clear that it is not we who play the music, but that to a large extent it is the music that plays us. A pleasantly realistic rejection of the romantic idea of the broken, visionary genius who creates something unique from the depths of his or her soul. His descriptions of the industry are always gripping: From the sometimes crazy development of the first successful sound recordings to the emergence of a record and music industry, to the recent upheavals that have resulted from digitalization. And smack in the middle of all this chaos: David Byrne and the Talking Heads, David Byrne and Brian Eno, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, David Byrne and the world musicians across the globe.

One of the first chapters describes the work of the
Talking Heads, and just when you think you’ve learned everything about the
topic, the big picture emerges towards the end of the book, with detailed descriptions
on occurrences in and around the legendary New York club “CBGB’s”. “How to Make
a Scene” is the title of the beautiful chapter in which Byrne describes how a
flamboyant scene began to grow in a down-and-out club in a sketchy New York
neighborhood, which ultimately birthed Tom Verlaine and Television, Blondie,
the Patti Smith Group, The Ramones and, last but not least, the Talking Heads.
Unlike the city’s traditional music clubs, which sometimes hosted three
different mainstream acts in one evening and where the clubs charged an
entrance fee for each of these concerts (!), in the 1970s the creator of CBGB’s
agreed to charge a small entrance fee which the bands of the evening were paid,
and otherwise collected the proceeds from the drinks. This not only turned the
former biker club into a goldmine for its owner, but also into an unparalleled
artistic field of experimentation, into an informal meeting place where young
bands who were disappointed by the rock gigantomania à la Eagles and Fleetwood
Mac could showcase their own ideas of contemporary pop music. There was no real
backstage area, the equipment was set up and the instruments were tuned in
front of the audience, the stage tended to be located somewhere at the edge of
the venue, the guests drank at the long bar or played billiards, and all the
inwardly passionate combos were not necessarily in solidarity with each other. Ironically,
it was essential that nobody was forced to listen with rapt attention. The
praise of a billiard player who had been knocking a few balls across the table
all evening with his back to the band was sometimes the only and most
motivating feedback you got as an artist. Byrne amends these rather down-to-earth
descriptions with unglamorous photos and self-drawn maps of the club – giving the
reader a pretty vivid impression of this location and its specific scene, which
many an expectant sightseer and rock tourist turned their back on, horrified.

It was here at CBGB’s that Byrne, who lived with his
band mates in a flat share, after years of aimless busking and nerdy noise
production in his teenage bedroom, was able to test and develop his ideas of a
new pop music as a “work in progress”. Among the up-and-coming New York bands there
were the Pop Art bands, the Expressionists and the posing romantics – whereas the
Talking Heads belonged to the conceptual artists and minimalists: They gleefully
freed their music and stage shows of all rock, baroque and art bombast, dressed
like ordinary people, sang about fear, psychoses and dysfunctional
relationships and underpinned everything rhythmically with old funk and soul
grooves. Alienation effect galore, highly artificial but still incredibly
thrilling. Thus was born the kind of pale-faced gawky dance music which drove
rock traditionalists crazy, but electrified upcoming generations. Ever eager to
explore new horizons, the Talking Heads made rapid artistic progress, and
Byrne, who had travelled far and wide, always in search of new artistic
experiences, began to diversify his conceptual framework. He discovered
parallels between the posturing of great rock stars and the stylized forms of
presentation in traditional Japanese theater, explored the ritual character of
African music and repeatedly tweaked his stage concepts.
Someone told him that on stage, everything had to be a little bit bigger than
in real life – which is why he presented himself in an oversized suit and not
only came up with the groundbreaking album Remain In Light, but also
with celebrated tours with a polyrhythmically adept funk-rock troupe. He later
incorporated information into his shows about how these shows were “made” by
having the stage and lighting elements rolled onto the stage and installed
piece by piece – a wonderful message on the meta-level that in no way
diminished the magic of the live performance. This was followed by the
discovery of Latin American music with the corresponding song and tour
concepts, and so on and so forth.

I always had a FEELING about the Talking Heads and David Byrne, but after reading How Music Works, I really understand for the first time what was behind this music and the concerts – without it destroying the fascination it holds for me. The same applies to the details outlining the creation of some of the song lyrics, for example to Once In A Lifetime: Of course David Byrne doesn’t make the mistake of explaining his lyrics down to the smallest detail and committing himself to them. But he does reveal how these partly cryptic yet compelling lyrics were created and encourages us to take a closer look at them. Here, too, it becomes clear: Apart from lyrics which were commissioned for a musical and had to fulfil certain functions within an oeuvre, song lyrics also depended on the conditions in the rehearsal room or studio when they were being created, the conditions that had been defined beforehand or that simply somehow came about. Mr. Spock, who doesn’t really belong here, would say: Fascinating!

Are there less successful passages in this book? Not really. Although I must admit that there were two chapters which I just scanned and where I even skipped a few pages. The first, “Business and Finances”, covers contract forms and cost planning for tour and studio projects in an almost book-keepingly meticulous way. The other, “Harmonia Mundi”, revolves around the essence and origin of music and the sometimes bizarre philosophical concepts which the history of mankind has generated about it. This is where it almost gets esoteric. But I’m sure that especially aspiring musicians who are working towards their breakthrough will find valuable tips for targeted economic production in “Business and Finances” and will feel strongly motivated not to entrust their career to who knows what kind of managers and/or dubious record companies, but to take their future courageously into their own hands.

“Harmonia Mundi”, on the other hand, despite all the endless digressions, can be summed up as follows: Music is and will always be something mysterious, whose essence is unfathomable. Music somehow seems to be intrinsic to humans from the very beginning. Be that as it may: The most important thing is that music touches and moves us – nothing else matters.

Just as I was about to turn the page again, Byrne told me about the church father Augustine and his assumption that every human being would hear a divine cosmic chord at the moment of death while simultaneously having the ultimate secrets of the universe revealed to them. Deadpan comment by freethinker Byrne: “very exciting, although just a little late to be of much use.” Understandable, actually: What’s the point of knowing the secrets of the universe if I’m dead the next moment? The secrets that Augustine is said to have been privy to were then passed down through the centuries, the passage continues, but, as Renaissance philosophers conceded, were unfortunately lost at some point in time. Byrne concludes: “Oops.” It is wry comments like these that keep the reader engaged until the very end of the book. And they inspire the reader to dig out Byrnes’ later albums American Utopia or Here Lies Love again (with great singers like Roisin Murphy, Kate Pierson, Santigold and the underrated Nicole Atkins).

David Byrne, How Music Works”,
Edinburgh/London 2012.              


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.