There were two takeaways from going to see Kraftwerk live. First, people at the show are ridiculous and terrible. Second, their music is so backhandedly political.
This politicalness comes from the band’s pointing out how technology will improve and harm life, how it’s turning humanity into an abstraction of itself. Clever! They suggest so much with so little.
In thinking about this, you have to wonder if there are any songs about the environment and climate change that aren’t inherently “Heal The World” level of cringeworthy. There are a few songs that address how damning humans are to Earth but most of them make you feel like a jackass just because you listened to them. It doesn’t have to be that way, though! Here are ten songs about climate change and the environment that won’t make you feel like an asshole.
Björk’s “Earth Intruders”
Perhaps the itchiest song about how humanity is killing the earth, Björk’s 2007 “Earth Intruders” articulated both ends of the environmentalist spectrum: we are both the cause and the solution to the problem. Our invasion of the planet has led us to today and we can either retreat or march toward a solution. The song is great, alone, but fairly terrible when juxtaposed with the rest of Björk’s canon.
Depeche Mode’s “The Landscape Is Changing”
Only a band like Depeche Mode could carry off a lyric like, “the landscape is crying.” Anyone else would sound absurd. The 1983 song handles big issues—deforestation, carbon emissions, water pollution, etc.—to light synths that lead to the smooth assertion of, “I don’t care if you’re going nowhere: just take care of the world.” This is the first band to make environmentalism sound cool in song.
What Depeche Mode suggested could be accomplished with “Landscape is Changing,” Radiohead exploded with “Idioteque.” The song is one of their coolest releases and suggests the reality of environmental destruction through Yorke’s political wail. The success of a song like “Idioteque” is that it scares you into seeing reality without getting too preachy: it’s a mirror to reality, not scaremongering.
Tracy Chapman’s “The Rape Of The World”
Chapman is a political powerhouse with her music and “The Rape Of The World” is straightforward proof of concept. What else is this song about? Chapman assumes a mourning Gaia role to lament what exactly we’ve done to wrong the world. Set to campfire bongos and twangy guitars, this is protest music for you to cry to while hiking.
Brian Eno’s “Another Green Earth”
No, “Another Green Earth” isn’t directly about environmentalism. But the politics of suggesting looking elsewhere, toward greener Earths, is proof enough. The song is a quick interlude, both mourning and hopeful, that is gone as fast as it arrived, much like the human race.
Róisín Murphy’s “Dear Miami”
One of her most overlooked B sides, 2007’s “Dear Miami” was a dedication to a city that will eventually be no more. Murphy maps how Miami is going to disappear as the ice caps melt but, unfortunately, VIP people who can’t afford to care are looking in the other direction as many will be left behind. Of all the songs, “Dear Miami” sounds the least like a climate change anthem because it was designed for gay dance floors, originating the concept of “climate change dance song.”
Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology)”
How can you make a list like this without this Gaye classic? It’s easy to overlook this song as an innocent soul jam but it’s super straightforward commentary on our overcrowded, radioactive planet…that was created in 1971. Sadly, after forty years, we still haven’t heeded Marvin’s warning.
Pixies’ “Monkey Gone To Heaven”
Yeah, dudes: this Pixies song made environmentalism cool in 1989. One of their most successful songs, “Monkey” suggests the experiment we’re participating in on Earth will lead to all the test subjects expiring at a certain point. While true in the sense of our collective mortality, the Pixies see our treatment of the planet as cause for us to disappear. Damn.
ANOHNI’s “4 Degrees”
The newest song, ANOHNI revitalized this sub-sub-sub-sub-genre of political music by dedicating nearly four minutes to the seemingly trivial rise in global temperature. Her song is unlike the rest in that she takes the point of view of an angry god, a pusher suggesting how “fun” it will be to witness all the death of animal species and nature just because we wanted it that way. She forecasts a future of destruction when the forecast goes up. While this may sound hyperbolic, she’s actually understating the situation.
Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity (Fukushima Version)”
The song that started it all: Kraftwerk’s initially vanilla “Radioactivity” from 1975 was reworked over the years to call out all the situations in which radioactivity has caused harm against humanity and the planet. The song drones through the names of battered places, as far back as Hiroshima to as recent as Fukushima. While the band has an inherent political savvy, the reworking of “Radioactivity” is a straightforward example of turning a message directly toward a problem.