Chords of discontent? Sustainability via musical irony

Kelman, Ilan | August 23, 2016 | Leave a Comment

And how environmentally friendly is the music industry? Photo by Ilan Kelman

Nearly thirty years elapsed between Madonna’s Material Girl and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop [explicit]. They provide the same message, told in different ways through different genres to different generations.

Material Girl (1984) states the opposite of its words. While Madonna intones “the boy with the cold hard cash / Is always Mister Right”, the real message is about rejecting “living in a material world”.

As with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we should follow our hearts not our wallets. The irony was lost on many of Madonna’s fans and critics, with the song’s title sticking as her epithet.

Fast forward to Thrift Shop (2012), an ironic counterpoint to the deliberate ostentiousness of the rapper spending cult. The artists self-reflexively challenged their peers’ gratuitous consumption. The song’s lyrics highlight the values (in both senses of the word) found in charity stores.

(Explicit version available here)

Does music’s populism–and the iconic and ironic messages from it–impart sustainability themes or their antithesis? For sustainability, what do you listen to and what do you hear?

Ilan Kelman is a reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London. You can follow him on Twitter @IlanKelman.

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  • I’m not a music-sociologist and hence have no adhoc research data available that would or could support any viable statistical argument, but I can speak for myself: When I was a teenager, basically over the course of the 80s, music definitely was a relevant element that shaped my philosophical and political world view, and it did so in different ways. I cannot precisely remember whether I noticed the irony or sarcasm in “material girl”, to stay with the example, but I do recall that the attitude displayed in the song and video struck me as hollow and absolutely abhorring. Sting’s “Russians” drove me to tears, and Paul Hardcastle’s “19” (about the average age of soldiers in vietnam) made me incredibly angry, partly perhaps because that also was the age my own grandfather was drafted into the German Wehrmacht early during WWII. Many songs, say Marillion’s “Fugazi” point towards the senseless and pointless nature of “ever more” and “ever faster” underlying the neoclassical brand of forced growth capitalism and also the neoclassical economic explanations it is based upon. So many songs express the feeling that we have created a world where we ourselves are left out, where we ourselves become superfluous, where death, damage and destruction can be interpreted as something positive – as business opportunities and stimulus for growth. The economy keeps growing, but human beings are reduced to functional entities that are only ascribed a value when they contribute to the automaton we refer to as “the economy”, a thing that has become a global machine that is an end in itself. The Planet was reduced to an economic resource (completely turning the meaning of the very word “economic” on its head). Humans were reduced to an economic resource. Living spare parts. As Billy Joel sang in “Allentown”:

    “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
    For the Pennsylvania we never found
    For the promises our teachers gave
    If we worked hard
    If we behaved
    So the graduations hang on the wall
    But they never really helped us at all
    No they never taught us what was real….”

    And let’s look closer at what all the songs are about. There are few songs praising the benefits of capitalism, and if so, they are ironic, or they are very critical in an acidic, sarcastic, even cynical way – think Shania Twain’s “Kaching”, although many people probably don’t contemplate the lyrics. Songs are about what concerns us deeply. The majority of songs are about relationships. About love. Many songs are about what we enjoy – dancing, being with friends, making party. Friday on my mind. I think if we look at our music and what it expresses we get a much better picture of what we humans are all about, what we desire, and it is deeply at odds with the world we have created. How many people shed tears to The Disney Pocahontas song “Colors of the Wind”?, how many listeners thought “Yes, that’s how it is” when hearing “Mother Earth” by Within Temptation?

    One of my University of London Professors, Ted Yates, always insisted to write clearly, even as a scientist. We are not lawyers who deliberately cloud knowledge. We are here to discover and convey our discoveries as clearly as possible, and the conveyor of a message is responsible for making himself understood. I agree with Prof. Yates, but it is nonetheless true that the person on the receiving end must be willing to read and listen and – possess a certain minimum willingness and ability to think. Without wanting to sound arrogant, it cannot be denied that there is an immense spread of intellectual abilities among the human race. There are people who cannot learn calculus, no matter what we try. It is tremendously difficult for a college educated IQ 130 person to communicate about any complex issue with an IQ 80 individual who dropped out of highschool. I’m saying that without any judgement and also being fully aware of the limitations of the IQ concept. Nonetheless – it is not without meaning. Before we can make an informed decision about anything we need to have at least some understanding of the issues at hand, and fewer and fewer people are able to grasp even a fraction of our ever more complex world. We all suffer from sensual overload, we all often are at the limits of our capacities, often without noticing. So to get back to the music: the impact it has on the listener will largely depend on the listener. Her openness and willingness to listen, her cultural and educational background, he language ability (I’m always thinking in a global context here) and also her intelligence. I do not think that artistic expression of the truth has any negative impact. It is always positive. And as Arthur C. Clarke once said: “A bad book is better than no book at all.” So perhaps a bad song is better than no song at all, too?

  • Tom Athanasiou

    My favorite — though it is a bit incomprehensible — is Eliza Gilkyson’s Unsustainable

  • Justin Beck

    Unlike many of my fellow progressives I don’t think rap has anything to offer as it is almost completely infiltrated by corporate fascism but I do humbly offer electronic dance group Oceanlab and their track on climate change “Miracle”. Not amazing lyrics but at least they take on the subject in a heartfelt way.

    • Thanks for sharing! For those interested, here is a link to “Miracle” by Oceanlab: