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Earth Day 2019: The Musicians Confronting Climate Change Catastrophe

From Matmos to Grimes, a new wave of music is critically engaging with environmental politics – but what does it sound like?

In a 1937 promotional film, the American plastics corporation Bakelite pronounced that ‘chemical research has taken the three kingdoms, Vegetable, Mineral and Animal, and created a fourth kingdom whose boundaries are unlimited’. As one of the many products that emerged from the fourth kingdom, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) took over from shellac as the material of choice for phonograph records in the 1950s. According to a study published earlier this month, 58 million kilograms of plastic was used by the US record industry in 1977. Plastic use dropped dramatically as downloads and music streaming began to take over from physical formats, down to around 8 million kilograms in 2016.

Though it might seem that the music industry has cleaned its act up in recent years, the energy required to maintain streaming servers takes a huge toll on the environment; since 1977, the carbon footprint of the US music industry alone has almost doubled. Though discarded vinyl records take centuries to decompose, streaming albums repeatedly is likely to consume more energy than it takes to produce a vinyl record or CD. Confronting the carbon footprint of music consumption is the first step towards raising awareness about environmental politics, issues that are beginning to shape the landscape of contemporary music. 

To accompany the special edition of their new album Plastic Anniversary (2019), Baltimore-based experimental electronic duo Matmos have constructed a ‘sculptural album’, embedding plastic bottles into an oversized transparent vinyl. Following Ultimate Care II (2016), which was composed entirely of the sounds of a washing machine, Plastic Anniversary takes the many diverse forms of the fourth kingdom as its source. 

Whilst the opener ‘Breaking Bread’ is constructed from the noise of ‘plucked and twanged’ vinyl records by the American soft rock band Bread, the painstaking song credits lists silicone gel breast implants, a spit receptacle used for DNA analysis, and a polycarbonate riot shield among the various ‘instruments’ used on the album. Featuring contributions from a high school marching band and the gnarled wail of plastic horns, ‘The Collapse of the Fourth Kingdom’ is a riotous fanfare for a time of ecological crisis. 

Stripped of the fizzing rhythmic energy that pumps through the rest of the album, the final track, ‘Plastisphere’, resembles an environmental soundscape. Of course, this is an illusion; we’re not listening to the call of seabirds or the swell of ocean waves, but bubble wrap, Velcro and plastic bags. The term ‘plastisphere’ was first used by marine biologists in 2013 to describe how the proliferation of microplastics has radically transformed marine ecosystems. Behind the sonic trickery, Plastic Anniversary is an album of political substance, a playful but sobering reminder of the untold consequences of our persistent contempt for the environment.

We are living through a time that many now describe as the ‘anthropocene’, an epoch defined by the destructive and irreversible consequences of human life on the natural ecology of the planet. In the run up to her forthcoming fifth album, titled Miss_Anthrop0cene (2019), Canadian singer and songwriter Grimes has nominated herself as its cheerleader. Each track will be a ‘different embodiment of human extinction’, centered around the ‘Goddess of climate change’ – a world-hating misanthrope with a ‘Voldemort vibe’. 

The lead single, ‘We Appreciate Power’, is a thrashy pop-rock number written under the alias of a propaganda girl group who rejoice in their enslavement to Artificial Intelligence. Rather than guilt-tripping her fanbase and millions of followers, the album is motivated by a desire to shift the discourse around climate change away from wearying despair and remorse towards something more ‘fun’. Though this approach might seem out of touch amidst the urgent calls for direct action and radical systemic change by environmental activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, to those who might feel impassive or apathetic, it’s a way in.

Much of American musician and vaporwave pioneer James Ferraro’s musical output has been preoccupied with the rapid development of technology and its social and ecological consequences. In the grinding trap roller Pollution (2015), Ferraro paints a bleak portrait of his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, whilst the 2016 song ‘Plastic Ocean (Poem for Deep Horizon)’ is a requiem for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, a catastrophic oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. ‘Plastic Ocean (Poem for Deep Horizon)’ sounds almost like an ad jingle or videogame music, a regurgitated MIDI sound palette of that Ferraro claims is designed to expose the ‘human folly’ of technological catastrophe. Though far from soul-stirring protest songs, Ferraro’s singular music is a lament for our dystopian present. 

Nathan Geyer is a freelance writer based in London.

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