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This year, musicians got fired up about climate change

Billie Eilish, the 18-year-old singer-songwriter redefining pop stardom, recently spoke with the the LA Times about her climate anxiety. It’s taken the form of bad dreams, spooky lyrics, and high fashion: a week earlier, Eilish wore a characteristically oversized “No Music on a Dead Planet” tee to the American Music Awards.

“We’re about to die if we don’t change,” she told the paper.

A year ago, such a blunt message from one of the biggest acts in the world would have seemed like an aberration. In April, Ryan Bassil at Vice argued that musicians weren’t ready to tackle the climate crisis — and wouldn’t be for the foreseeable future. Combining climate activism with a music career isn’t a lucrative stance, especially at its extremes: Coldplay, which announced it will not tour until concerts are “actively beneficial” to the environment, stands to lose hundreds of millions in ticket sales. Activism isn’t always aesthetically pleasing, either. As Bassil noted, artists like Bono have made songs about collective action seem chronically “corny and overly sincere.” Or, as Grist put it back in 2009, the Venn diagram of “songs that suck” and “songs that are green” is basically a circle.

But it has since become clear that this was the year that the changing climate began changing music, with many major recording artists streaming their interpretations of the eco-apocalypse. It was, at times, extremely corny. In April, YouTube rapper Lil Dicky released “Earth,” a star-studded and totally unlistenable call to action. In July, The 1975 made an eponymous “song” that’s just a Greta Thunberg speech set to a tinkling piano. More often, though, musicians have found their own unique way to give voice to the experience of living at the end of days — to living, in other words, in 2019.

Eilish is arguably the most famous and outspoken artist on the climate crisis so far. In September, Darkroom / Interscope Records released the music video for “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” For a haunting three minutes, Eilish dons the perspective — and wings — of a fallen angel who lands in the goopy darkness of a La Brea-like tar pit. As the creature stalks the seared streets of Los Angeles, Eilish whispers her refrain, “Hills burn in California / my turn to ignore ya / don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

In case the foreboding lyrics or fiery visuals don’t do the trick, the YouTube video description shares Eilish’s message in clear-cut prose: “A note from Billie,” it proclaims. “The clock is ticking… take it to the streets. #climatestrike.”

Grimes, the experimental recording artist, has also been writing hymns for a horsewoman of the apocalypse. She described her forthcoming album, Miss Anthropocene, as the tale of an “anthropomorphic Goddess of climate change.” The first singles dropped in November. On “My Name is Dark,” Grimes sings about how “imminent annihilation sounds so dope,” while still asking God to “un-fuck the world.”

Not everyone is so high-concept. In August, Lana Del Rey released her long-awaited album, Norman Fucking Rockwell. On “The Greatest,” Del Rey put a joyfully nihilistic spin on our current catastrophe. She spends the majority of the song mixing the personal and the universal with lyrics like, “the culture is lit and if this is it, I’ve had a ball / I guess I’m burned out after all.” But at the end of the track, the former New Yorker gets explicit about her new Southern California surroundings: “LA is in flames, it’s getting hot” — an idea reinforced by the cover art, which depicts Del Rey on a boat just off a smoldering shore.

At this point, it feels like you can find climate change in everything. Fans retrospectively assign apocalyptic meaning to their favorite songs all the time. Take “Year 3000” by the Jonas Brothers (a Disney-fied cover of an earlier hit by the British band Busted) which can be understood as a message of climate optimism: your descendants will “live underwater,” but the time-traveling brothers assure you that “your great-great-great granddaughter is doing fine.”

Sometimes, it’s the artists who add new meaning to their own music. At the Global Climate Strike in New York City, thousands watched Jaden Smith perform a short musical set. He introduced his 2017 song “Icon,” which is about gold teeth and owning your own record label, as something that “really goes to show what we all have to be in this world — and in the environmental community — in order to make a difference.”

This may have been the year that climate change had a musical moment all its own, but the message has been emanating from our speakers for decades: What is “All Star” if not a reminder of just how long we’ve known about climate change? As Smash Mouth sang in 1999, “The ice we skate is getting pretty thin / The water’s getting warm so you might as well swim / My world’s on fire, how about yours? / That’s the way I like it and I never get bored.”

As musicians develop new ways to address the climate crisis, listeners won’t get bored, either. And maybe, at Eilish’s behest, some will continue to take their climate anthems to the streets.

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