Through my observations, I have noticed that the music industry has helped shape our society to the way that it is now. It is always interesting to see how a specific song or artist can capture a nation with their art, and mold and shape the people with the words they preach. Songwriters take advantage of that fact by writing songs to prove a point or to make known something they are passionate about. Throughout history, songwriters have experimented with their songs by using modernistic and economic views to depart from past cultures (Powell, 15). Music can help humanity take a stand against current explosive problems including racism, LGBT rights, and rape and abuse. Depending on the times there have been different problems being addressed by the music industry. Things like alcohol, drugs, and addiction are often brought to awareness, but a specific topic has caught my attention. One theme in music that is not often spoken about is the influence of humanity on the environment. However, there was a time when this theme was more common. The 1960s and 1970s were the big boom of environmental care, and although it has gone down from there, there are still a few artists who speak about this huge problem. Today I will be talking about how the music industry draws attention to negative human impact on the environment.
“The environmental movement had taken root as far back as the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth that it truly began to flower. Environmental awareness built slowly but steadily throughout the fifties and sixties, and then all at once exploded in 1969 following a series of high-profile environmental disasters… Ecologists who had for years been fighting to get their concerns about the environment into the national spotlight suddenly found their voices being heard” (Glenn, First Earth Day). Environmentalism in music began in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the era of the hippie movement. It was a post war era when society was tragedy stricken and sick of the hatred of war. Love was the focus of the era, and because the environment was being trashed from the war and pollution was piling up, the issue of the environment was a focus too.
There were definitely many environmental problems that happened in this era as well. Specifically, there was smog that covered Los Angeles and New York City from all of the cars on the roads. This caused an increase in respiratory illnesses and drew the country’s attention to the air quality problem. Secondly, the Santa Barbara disaster occured. In this case, a union oil drilling company spilled 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the ocean. All of the wildlife this killed washed up onto residential beaches. DDT insecticide was an awful problem as well. Although it is now banned, it was used on crops to keep away pests. However, birds would eat the infected insects. This would cause the birds to lay brittle eggs, which ultimately put many species of birds in danger. Also, the Cuyahoga River was being used as a waste ground due to lack of good sewage disposal. The waste mixed with the oil from the spill and caused a huge fire when the sparks from a passing train landed upon it.
These monumental events in history left their mark on the earth. The world was changing, and so was the culture. Civil rights were becoming an argument. Subjects like racism, segregation, and women’s rights were being fought for. The Vietnam War was beginning, which meant the drafting of soldiers. This sparked the hippie, or in other words, the anti war movement. The culture of the youth of America was changing drastically from that of their elders and the earlier generations. The mindset was changing to a peace and love attitude rather than war. Rock and roll was becoming part of the popular culture, and spirituality and liberal arts were evolving and growing in popularity. These explorations in new ideas and these realizations lead to drastic changes in the course that the earth was headed.
These changes started the idea of having pro environmental movements. Give Earth A Chance was the movement that began in Michigan during the Vietnam War. Give Peace a Chance was already a movement formed by the Hippies of the time, so Give Earth a Chance was the perfect name, as it was already popular. Buttons were made and the popularity grew, and eventually, by spring of 1970, the first annual Earth Day was celebrated (Rome, 525).
New Left was a political movement of the time as well. This group focused on civil rights, and many other human rights, and very strongly on environmentalism. Historians believe that this movement was the real stem of environmental movements.
The human race was realizing that pollution and progress did not have to coincide like it had formerly done. They saw that the new agricultural enhancements, synthetic materials, and power sources came with harsher environmental impact”(Laitala, 50). This was when the music industry decided to step in and attempt to make known this issue widely. Several artists, including Joni Mitchell, wrote strongly opinionated songs to prove their point.
Joni Mitchell was an environmental activist and a singer songwriter. She won eight Grammy awards for her work that she began at age 9. Mitchell writes about emotional information: who controls it, and how it is squandered or hoarded, withheld or weaponized” (Chiasson, 1). She was, and still is, known as the “ultimate earth goddess” (Monk, 37). Although technically she was not part of any specific environmental movements, she often used her music to draw awareness to the problem of the human impact on the environment.
“Big Yellow Taxi”, by Joni Mitchell is a perfect example of how songs can be used to impact the environment. This song was written about Hawaii. Joni Mitchell was on a vacation and she wanted to look at the mountains. She looked out of the window from her hotel that was supposed to have a Mountain View, and instead what she saw was a giant parking lot. In the song she says the lyrics “they took all the trees and put them in a tree museum and they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see them” (Mitchell, Taxi). In this line she was talking about the Foster Gardens of Hawaii. The Foster Gardens are a Makiki tree museum. She was also talking about the Redwood Forests, and drawing attention to the fact that soon, she believed, trees would only be in museums. She also uses the lyrics: “Hey farmer farmer. Put away that DDT now, give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees” (Mitchell, Taxi). These lyrics were drawing attention to the awful problem of the DDT insecticides formerly discussed that were killing the birds and the bees at this time. This insecticide eventually was banned, probably thanks to the negative attention Joni Mitchell attracted to it. As stated by Calder in an article, “ according to an interview she [Mitchell] did in the late ’90s with the LA Times, some parking lots have been turned into parks because of her song! It’s a fantastic example of a great Canadian song that uses music for a positive message” (cbcmusic.ca).
Sadly, after the 60s and 70s, environmentalism became less popular. Humanity grew selfish and they cared more about selfish things than the planet. “Regardless of the success of green movements to raise public concern and affect government policy… in the; developing world little has been achieved” (Powell, 15). That’s when things begin going downhill.
After a long lull in environmentalism, Michael Jackson made a comeback. Although Michael Jackson was not primarily famous for his role in environmentalism, people may not know how large of a role he actually played. After Jackson’s death, his sister wanted him to be remembered as a humanitarian and a contributor to scientific advances in the treatment of HIV aids and global food security (Murphey, King and Environmentalist). His song, Earth Song, made a huge impact on America and brought people to more of a realization. In an interview, Michael Jackson said, “This is Earth’s song, because I think nature is trying so hard to compensate of man’s mismanagement of the Earth” (Murphey, King and Environmentalist).
Earth song, written in 1995, was a very important song to Michael Jackson.
“I remember writing ‘Earth Song’ when I was in Austria, in a hotel. And I was feeling so much pain and so much suffering of the plight of the Planet Earth. And for me, this is Earth’s Song, because I think nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the Earth. And with the ecological unbalance going on, and a lot of the problems in the environment, I think earth feels the pain, and she has wounds, and it’s about some of the joys of the planet as well. But this is my chance to pretty much let people hear the voice of the planet. And this is ‘Earth Song.’ And that’s what inspired it. And it just suddenly dropped into my lap when I was on tour in Austria.’ (Wiser, Songfacts).
In the music video for ‘Earth Song’, there is a scene in the Amazon showing deforestation, a town destroyed by a battle in Croatia, and the poaching of animals in Tanzania. This was a shock to America at the time when it came out. Out of this song came the birth of a new age of environmentalism in some Americans, but sadly, the hype did not last long or spread too wide in America. The song was much more popular in the United Kingdom (Murphey, King and Environmentalist).
After this small hype died down, America went back to it’s selfish state. We are still in the state, but there is one specific artist who is actively working to make a change currently.
Jack Johnson is using his platform to make a change in America’s outlook on the earth. He is a major environmentalist. He reaches many people through his concerts and popularity. He knows that people travel to his shows from far distances, creating lots of carbon emissions. He tries to make his shows more eco-friendly to eliminate some of the harsh affects his concerts can have on the environment. Jack Johnson travels in a van rather than a bus. In an interview, Johnson said,
“We started getting the message out of ways that people can be creative to get to the shows,” he explains. “Take mass transit, ride their bikes, or carpooling. Any way you can cut down on the amount of vehicles…because 80-90% of emissions come from people traveling to the shows. We have a bike valet at all of our shows. Every time we come around it gets more popular and it gets attention in the local news!” (Ferreiro, Johnson Interview).
Jack Johnson obviously cares deeply for the environment. Although all of the environment is obviously important to him, his home, Hawaii, is extra important to him. He wants these islands to be preserved.
“Also high on Johnson’s priorities is his dedication to the environment, in particular to preserving the natural beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. In 2003, he and Kim founded the Kokua Hawaii Foundation to support environmental education in schools. When Johnson performs in school gymnasiums, armed with his songs for the 2006 Curious George soundtrack (which features green-friendly tracks like ‘The 3 R’s,’ about recycling), madness ensues. ‘We don’t even have a curbside recycling program in Hawaii,’ says Mark Cunningham, a North Shore lifeguard and longtime friend. ‘Convincing adults to lobby down at the state capital is an exercise in futility. So Jack and Kim say, ‘Hey, let’s brainwash the kids,’ but in a sincere and logical way. It’s this incredible awareness they’re raising in a generation of school kids.’” (Scaggs, Dude Abides).
Only energy-efficient bulbs are used at Jack Johnson concerts and recording studio. “Johnson and his three-piece band — bassist Merlo Podlewski, drummer Adam Topol and pianist Zach Gill — laid down Static in Johnson’s new studio, the Solar Powered Plastic Plant. It’s tucked in the back of a house in Los Angeles that is the base for Johnson’s label, “Brush fire Records.” (Scaggs, Dude Abides). He carries around filtered water dispensers to reduce plastic bottles. He encourages people to bring reusable glasses to fill with water. Jackie Johnson donated 100% profits from his tours from 2008 to 2013 to nonprofit organizations to the Johnson Ohana charitable foundation, in effort to help not only the environment, but also the human race (Scaggs, Dude Abides). He doesn’t only want to protect the environment with his life, but he wants to inspire others to do the same. He makes it easier for Americans who see his shows to be kind to this earth.
The song “The Three R’s” by Jack Johnson is a great example of Jack Johnson‘s mission to affect the planet for good, even though it is intended for kids. In this song, he teaches the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. He gives examples of each ‘R,’ and instructs kids to take care of the earth in simple ways, such as using reusable bags at the store, sharing clothes with their siblings when they outgrow them, and recycling things that cannot be reused.
It is clear to see that the three of these songs have inspired the human race. “Big Yellow Taxi” inspires people to stand up against negative environmental activity and it draws attention to the problem in a very clear coated way. “Earth Song” challenges people to change their ways and opens eyes to what is really happening in the world. It clearly depicts the evil going on towards the earth. “The Three R’s” by Jack Johnson encourages the next generations to use less plastic and reduce waste, even if their parents are not teaching them that.
In conclusion, music can be used to influence the nation. Certain artist have used their platform to inform about the negative impacts of humans on nature. Although it does not solve the problem, it draws attention, and that is always the first step.
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