The death of Michael Jackson has prompted eco-bloggers to take another look at Jackson’s 1995 “Earth Song“, which some consider the most popular environmentally themed song ever produced. The song remains Jackson’s biggest seller in the U.K, having sold over a million copies there — more than either “Thriller” or “Billie Jean” — but it was never even released as a single in the U.S.
Alex Pasternack at TreeHugger.com describes the epic music video’s “scenes of environmental destruction and war [...] cut with Jackson wandering across a landscape of drought and fire, before he does his yell-through-the-wind thing, undoing all of our ecological damage like magic.” Its messianic portrayal of Jackson staving off the eco-apocalypse apparently ticked off Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker (now a climate change activist rocker) who stormed the stage at one of Jackson’s performances. Other blogs posting about it include the Guardian’s Environment Blog, Rock and Ecology, Moving Images Moving People, and Mark Meisner’s new environmental communication blog Indications, which also provides helpful links to sites examining environmental themes in popular music. One can find lists of such “earth songs” or “eco-tunes” at SierraClub.org, PlanetPatriot.net, and Rich Wallace’s Climate Change Songs site — and see the long list of links at the end of that document for others.
A focus on environmental messages in popular music, however, doesn’t tell us much about the ways music reshapes the material, social, and perceptual ‘ecologies’ within which it is produced, consumed, and lived. (I’ve been developing this idea of “three ecologies,” inspired originally by Felix Guattari’s book of that title, in my writing on film, but it applies just as well to music.) The focus on media messages tends toward an instrumentalist understanding of cultural artifacts — which is helpful enough within an environmental culture that seeks to ‘market’ the ‘right ideas’ and images to audiences, but if those ideas/images remain subject to the short memory spans and limited issue-attention cycles of popular media interest, any effort at social or environmental change remains an uphill struggle. Jackson’s “Earth Song” is a fascinating artifact, and I have no doubt that it got some of his youthful fans excited about environmental issues at the time it came out, but I would want to know to what extent it set this affective energy into motion — the ways it informed fans’ identities (or failed to), shaped the ways they felt and thought about things, and moved them to discussion and even action on environmental issues.
Another moment within the song’s and video’s cultural circulation that does get mentioned in some of this environmental commentary is its production. Pasternack writes, “It was named by MTV one of the top 40 most expensive music videos, and was also likely one of the most carbon-heavy, too: locations included the Amazon rainforest, Croatia, Tanzania, and Warwick, New York, where a safe forest fire was simulated in a corn field.” Ecocritical film scholars have been urging ‘greener’ forms of film production, and the same could be done (and is being done) with music. But ultimately an ecocritical approach to music would have to deal not only with the ways music and its related media forms (such as videos) are produced and the cultural meanings they convey, but also the ways in which they might broaden, or dampen, collective and institutional capacities for socio-ecological change. Popular music of the kind Michael Jackson excelled at did change people through the meanings and affects it conveyed about movement/dance and race (blurring the black-white divide in America perhaps more than any other artist to that time), but I doubt the same could be said of the environmental or eco-social imagery in this song, which isn’t particularly original (neither the video’s romanticization of indigenous people nor Jackson’s role as messianic agent leading a magical movement reversing “man’s” environmental sins were new ideas). What was new was that this was Michael Jackson doing it. But that has a history, too — Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On preceded it by over two decades, and it’s interesting to compare the cool, heady optimism of Gaye’s video (just folks gettin’ together to change things, man) with the hot jeremiadic fervor of Jackson’s.
The message-focused instrumentalism — a focus on songs that would convey or encode new ecological meanings and sensibilities — reaches its apogee, perhaps, in A Singable Earth Charter, a project that relates this task to a broader set of cognitive-psychological and cultural contexts than found in most discussion of popular ecoculture. But there remains plenty of room for the development of a broader agenda within ecocritical studies of music, which would look at the connections between the production of music (including the ways its production enables or constrains the democratic capacity for music/culture-making) and music’s many meanings and uses, including in relation to popular and alternative cultures, dance and body cultures, communication and new media, soundscapes or ‘sound ecologies’, and so on. The work of musicologists like Steven Feld, Charles Keil, Philip Bohlman, and Tim Taylor provides some avenues for the kind of ethnographically informed cultural analysis of music that ecocritics could try to emulate. The Ecocriticism Study Group of the American Musicological Society has put out an impressive bibliography of resources that should be required reading for aspiring ‘ecomusicologists.’ The ESG leans toward the kind of eco-pastoral (rurality and wilderness favoring) normativity that has shaped the field of acoustic ecology since its inception, but there is clearly more brewing in this area than that. More cross-fertillization between the fields of environmental communication, cultural studies, musicology (including ecomusicology), and ecophilosophy could bear much interesting fruit.
A couple of other takes on Michael Jackson which are, in very different ways, attuned to a few of the broader ‘ecologies’ of music, are ANTHEM‘s brief but provocative actor-network account of the Michael Jackson “assemblage” and Steven Shaviro’s more freewheeling cultural analysis of Jackson.