Chords of discontent? Sustainability via musical irony

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

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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