Anthems of the Environment Past and Present

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Environmental activism in music made its first big appearance in the 1970s when ecological issues like pollution and over-population started attracting attention to the health of the environment. The 70s started off with the creation of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which was the first federal legislation ever enacted to control levels of air pollution. The Clean Water Act was soon to follow, along with major scientific advances in toxicology and climate sciences throughout the rest of the decade.

Since music often speaks about the zeitgeist of a certain era, it’s not surprising that many of the most poignant songs about environmental issues were written by chart-topping artists of the 1970’s. Here’s a few to remember (and maybe add to your playlist) along with some contemporary examples that reflect more current threads of environmentalism.

1. Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) – topping the list is this 1971 hit by Marvin Gaye, from his album “What’s Going On.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says the album “mused deeply on such issues as Vietnam, drugs, inequality, the economy and the environment,” which is well demonstrated by these lyrics of the song:

“Ah, things ain’t what they used to be, no no. Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury. Ah oh, mercy, mercy me.” 

2. Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell wrote this song in 1970, which was covered in the nineties by the Counting Crows. The song’s cautionary – warning “you dont know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” She implies that we should think twice before paving over mother nature, to put up something else that in hindsight isn’t as worthy. She also calls attention to pesticide pollution saying:

“Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT, now. Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, Please!”

3. Apeman – Also released in 1970, The Kinks wrote this song to point out the paradox of human evolution: evolution has lead to the creation of the urban environment (“the city and the traffic rumble”), but has simultaneously created threats to the species (“over-population, and inflation, and starvation, and the crazy politicians”).

4. Excuse Me, Mister – Written by Ben Harper in the 90s, this song addresses an unnamed “mister,” and seeks to hold him accountable for his arrogance and neglect for environmental concerns. “Mister” could represent CEO’s of businesses, politicians, industry workers, or any person who is ignorant of the consequences his/her actions have on the environment.

“Excuse me Mr., isn’t that your oil in the sea? And the pollution in the air Mr.
whose could that be?”

5. Sprawl II – To bring us up to date, this 2010 release by Arcade Fire lends a contemporary perspective on environmental topics, namely, suburban sprawl. Not addressed much by the media until recent years, sprawl is a hot topic of the 2000’s as cities continue to expand to meet the needs of the growing population. Arcade Fire speaks about the adverse impacts sprawl has on the landscape, saying:

“Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains, and there’s no end in sight, I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.”

(image: The View From the Afternoon)

Written by jmalsky

December 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm

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