Tag Archive: music

The explicitly ecological piece on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), which, like a lot of his music at the time, fuses a clear-eyed realism with an optimistic, gospel-tinged sense of possibility. I’m not sure where this video comes from (or why David Bowie appears in it), but the shots of people (heads, notably) in thought underlines the sober message of “think, man” — something that was possible in cooler, more reflective times. Michael Franti’s “Everyday Life Has Become a Health Risk” (no video available) tries to do this as well, though less coolly than some of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s other songs, like “Music and Politics.”

Gaye and Jackson shared Motown, at the time at least, and with Motor City’s demise and potential eco-revival, there’s a story to be told about Detroit, black music, and ecology somewhere in there (cf. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, technoists Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, et al.).


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.


One of the more oblique threads I’ve been pursuing on this blog has to do with what new media are doing to aural and musical information. Music is, of course, much more than information: it is embodied affect (in a Deleuzian sense) that carries, channels, activates, mobilizes (sets into motion), transforms, and disseminates cultural meanings as well as culturally imbued bodily affects. In the process music imprints feelings, sensations and meanings into our bodies and, at the same time, outwards into the world that it describes, inscribes, and infuses with rhythm and aural texture. It fills and organizes the spaces of resonance between bodies, but also ‘spaces’, or reterritorializes, our own sense of ourselves – as Deleuze and Guattari’s oft-quoted opening lines to “Of the Refrain” suggest.

Dan Visel’s piece on music & metadata has gotten me thinking about how musical metadata — “things that are outside of the text, but still of primary importance to how we read a text”, which in the case of music includes titles and information about the performers — are becoming part of a more fluid and oceanic datasphere. When I was growing up, the access points to the musical universe were radio stations (a few, like the original CFNY, among the dozens available in the Toronto area), record stores (a few, like the Record Peddler, whose employees I could trust for their cool tips), and a handful of magazines (like Toronto’s Shades and a few of the other free art and music zines, most of which have left not a shred of evidence behind themselves in the digital era). I used to have to keep listening, sometimes for half an hour or more, to find out what it was that I liked on my favorite college radio station, and if I wasn’t listening closely I could miss it — the metadata were so scarce. But once I heard it I knew what to look for (on a trip downtown to the Peddler), and once I bought the album, and maybe a copy of New Musical Express or Trouser Press that featured an interview with the band, I was as metadata-rich as anyone I knew.

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I’ve been getting into music networking/streaming radio sites Last.fm and Pandora.com and thinking about how they and related forms of social and artistic networking relate to the ideas this blog is exploring. Google can search for words, but not (yet) for snippets of musical melody, harmonic progressions, jazz solos, visual images. But once these are digitized, uploaded, and interpreted, they can be tagged and connected to others in ever-multiplying connections. These sites allow for the utmost in niche marketing – type in your favourite artist and listen to all the other artists who sound that way – but also for an infinite pluralization of the niches your musical identity can occupy.

Blogger Steve Krause compares Pandora and Last.fm to ‘nature’ and ‘nurture,’ in that Pandora.com actually analyzes individual pieces of music according to a set of parameters they developed – they refer to this process as the Musical Genome Project – while Last.fm relies on its users, i.e. on the interpretive creativity of the social community, to tag and analyze music so as to create as complete a many-layered map of the musical universe as possible.

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more musical colors

After writing about Jon Hassell’s “coffee coloured” global music of the future, I was intrigued to find out that Timothy Morton, author of “Ecology Without Nature,” has been writing about the ecological implications (or something like it) of Just Intonation versus Equal Temperament.

For those unaware of the fine details of musical tuning, Just Intonation is what’s considered to be a more “natural” tuning system (based on natural harmonics) than the one we’ve gotten used to after a few hundred years of piano-dominated equal temperament. The latter mathematically divides the scale into twelve equal parts (semi-tones) and then strings them into melodies and weaves them into harmonies. But those notes are found nowhere in nature; in fact, JI aficionados argue, it takes seriously detuned ears (like ours) to hear equal-tempered music – which describes most of what passes for music on radios and iPods today – as if it were normal.

In “Ecru and beige versus magenta and blue sound”, Morton argues that Equal Temperament, typified by the piano, “hard-wires” a certain way of listening which itself “reifies inner space” into a kind of permanent “brown” – the “metastasized cancer of the bourgeois ego.” When minimalists like La Monte Young and Terry Riley started messing with this tuning in the early 1960s, they literally “opened up the non-reified spaces within.”

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music as coffee and as philosophy

I just came across this interesting tribute Brian Eno had written to trumpeter and experimental composer Jon Hassell, which gets at a few very deleuzian and immanentist notions: about music as “embodied philosophy”, and Hassell’s idea of a “coffee coloured music of the future” that reflects “a globalised world constantly integrating and hybridising, where differences [are] celebrated and dignified.” Hassell came up with the coffee/music metaphor well before the era of world music, Starbucks, and Putumayo, before Eno and David Byrne’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (which arguably launched the era of world music, if not Starbucks), and it certainly doesn’t work as well today as it might have then. If anything, coffee represents the homogenization of differences into a universal currency of caffeine-fueled global service-industrialism. (See Anahid Kassabian’s “Would you like some world music with your latte? Starbucks, Putumayo, and distributed tourism” for an interesting take on this.) But Hassell‘s music, to my mind, succeeded in integrating its source influences at a level that few hybrid musical forms had before then. “Earthquake Island,” “Aka-Darbari-Java,” and his two “Fourth World” collaborations with Eno were particularly good. At least on the level of content, Hassell’s musical caffeine might be considered “fair trade.” On the level of production, on the other hand, they still constitute something along the lines of cultural appropriation.

But, then, we live in an era of cultural appropriation run wild (or gone tame and mainstream)… Timothy Taylor’s “Global Pop,” “Strange Sounds,” and “Beyond Exoticism” do a good job chronicling some of this current within western musical culture.