Earth Day: 15 Pro-Environment Songs
Faced with the deteriorating condition of our planet, people react in various ways. Some donate to charity, some sift trash along the highway. A select few pen well-meaning — but cheesy — songs. From the Beach Boys to will.i.am and Celine Dion, here are 15 odes to Mama Earth.
The Beach Boys, “Don’t Go Near the Water”
At least this song has shock value on its side: when even these surf-pop gents turn from the sea, there is likely good reason for it. (And not just that Brian Wilson never actually learned to surf.) Their anti-pollution ditty, the opener of 1971’s Surf’s Up, is distorted and psychedelic, but the brisk, falsetto chorus that served them well on so many other hits sounds glib here. The concluding vocal swoon serves their stern message better, though the line “toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble bath” seems to skirt the real toxic culprits a bit.
Jack Johnson, “The 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle)”
To be fair, there’s every indication that Jack Johnson, the poet laureate of West Coast college trustafarians, wrote this song for children. It appears on the Curious George soundtrack, and it boasts the merry, reductive logic of a Rebecca Black B-side: “Three, it’s a magic number/Yes it is, it’s a magic number/Because two times three is six/And three times six is 18/And the 18th letter in the alphabet is R.” Regardless, when Johnson implores his listeners a few stanzas later to swipe their siblings’ clothes before buying their own, he should know: that will just get you beat up, regardless of age.
Crosby & Nash, “To the Last Whale: (A. Critical Mass/ B. Wind on the Water)”
The closing track to this distilled duo’s 1975 Wind on the Water opens with a full minute and a half of abstract a capella tones, then another minute of somber keyboard strikes and overlaid whale calls. And then it gets really bizarre when the pair harmonizes balefully about whales that have beached on the shore. Their voices crest prettily but overall, the song struggles to stay afloat in its own ponderousness.
will.i.am, “S.O.S. (Mother Nature)”
The Black Eyed Pea pleads for the planet’s divine intervention on the 15th(!) track of his deceptively titled third album, 2007’s Songs About Girls. Prophesizing “the Eskimo gets bit by a mosquito” and “rastas in Jamaica will get hit by a quake/that registers something like 8.8,” will.i.am’s brooding (if occasionally less than fluid) rhymes do have a respectable snap of urgency. The drum part copped from Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is less effective, as is the equal-opportunity praying to Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad and basically everyone but L. Ron.
Kenny Loggins, “Conviction of the Heart”
Easy listening’s favorite lumberjack turns his commitment issues on Mother Nature, lamenting, “I’ve never given love/with any conviction of the heart.” And this seems true; when the single was released (on 1991’s Leap of Faith), Loggins didn’t even have the conviction to dye his hair and beard the same color. This soft-rock rally was as vaguely narrated as its was successful; Loggins talks sweepingly of “air that’s too angry to breathe, water our children can’t drink,” but Al Gore has said that he loves the song, so there’s that.
The Eagles, “The Last Resort”
A sullen ballad that lazily swipes at manifest destiny and Christian conversion, the last track on Hotel California saves it strongest vitriol for the suburban encroachment of the Wild West. “Some rich men came and raped the land/Nobody caught ’em/Put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and Jesus/People bought ’em,” rasps singer Don Henley – but the piano-driven backing is so sedate and the tempo so plodding, he sounds disinterested by the time the band crosses the Mississippi. Then there are still half of the seven-plus minutes left.
Three Dog Night, “Out in the Country”
Equal parts pastoral nature ode and twitching misanthrope’s anthem, “Out in the Country” was written by Oscar-winning composer Paul Williams and popularized in the Seventies by this cadre of L.A. hippies. Jangling, idealistic Americana is a curious base for the lyrics, which justifies spontaneous country treks with abject paranoia: “I feel them closing in on me” and “I find a quiet place, far from the human race.” Who wants to go camping with these dudes?
Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton, “Big Yellow Taxi”
Joni Mitchell‘s disgusted take on urban sprawl has been covered thoroughly since its 1970 inception, including admirable turns from Bob Dylan, Green Day, and Tracy Chapman. But this cover, featured on the soundtrack to the 2002 Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant flick Two Weeks Notice, doesn’t quite share the same heat. Crows singer Adam Duritz opts for full, bawling emote, while Carlton’s supporting ooh-ahhs sounds as chipper as a prom queen’s. Also, the video’s scenes of them strolling around a shuttered amusement park at Coney Island seems to mix some metaphors, at best.
John Denver, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”
Denver wrote scores of pro-environment pop songs in his career, and was a recognizable spokesman for conservation ecology; the last song he wrote before his death in 1997 was called “Yellowstone, Coming Home.” This finger-picked ballad to temperate days went to Number One on the Billboard charts in 1974. It also includes the mushy line “sunshine almost always makes me high,” which has united generations of college students in their snickering.
Miley Cyrus, “Wake Up America”
On her second album, 2008’s Breakout, Cyrus delivers an impassioned, nakedly Auto-tuned missive of sustainability to the Facebook generation — and, like much of her teen fanbase fixated on Farmville, she hasn’t bothered to crack a newspaper about the topic. “Everything I read is global warming, going green/I don’t know what all this means,” she chirps happily over a handful of power chords. Not the most dynamic contribution to the conversation, but who knows: one more song positioning all the ecological blame Stateside, and maybe we’ll finally sign the Kyoto Protocol.
Celine Dion, “Skies of L.A.”
Her heart will go on, but her lungs are full of smog. Canada’s biggest Nineties export doesn’t know if “tomorrow has a day” and piano keys are tinkling delicately: all is about par in the Dion universe, but this 1997 track is a pretty sleepy charge against air pollution. Then again, if she truly “can’t see the sun through the sky from here,” the clouds of exhaust have either gotten exponentially worse in Hollywood, or it is nighttime.
Dave Matthews Band, “Proudest Monkey”
Jam-band kingpin Dave Matthews can write with surprising tenacity… but only when he wants to. This isn’t one of those times. As barbed as “Don’t Drink the Water” is with its snarling stanzas on manifest destiny, “Proudest Monkey” (on 1996’s Crash) is the cheesy inverse: a Pixar-ready tale of a little primate that makes his way to the big city, only to miss the quiet, simple ecosystem he left behind. Heavy lies the song that attempts to bring solemnity to the phrase “monkey see, monkey do,” as this repeatedly does. Most egregiously, Matthews misses an opportunity to describe the hilarious people-clothes the monkey must’ve worn while in the cosmopolitan jungle.
Julian Lennon, “Saltwater”
John Lennon‘s firstborn takes a soppy turn on this 1991 single, crooning about the destruction of nature and how it makes him cry like John Boehner watching a Hallmark ad. “Saltwater wells in my eyes,” Lennon sighs through a catalogue of eco-grievances: the razing of the forests, the hole in the ozone layer. He weeps at the drop a hat – literally, because that hat might crush a flower – over lilting keys strongly reminiscent of the wintry Mellotron intro of Pops’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.” (Highbrow note: Lennon also seems to cop from the Italian opera Tosca, insisting, “I have lived for love/but now that’s not enough.”)
James Taylor, “Gaia”
Rippling strings, soprano sax, featherweight harmonies: James Taylor will see your mawkishness and raise it. Singing in 1997 of a mass exodus from New York City in search of greener pastures, Taylor compares a bus to a “foolish school of fish on wheels” and turns “helpless and speechless and breathless” once he’s perched on a mountain. Then he prays for trees and fish. (Again with the fish!)
Yes, “Don’t Kill the Whale”
Once upon the 1970s, the Save the Whales movement was a massive, unavoidable mainstream cause. British prog-rockers Yes capitalized on it with 1978’s Tormato, which includes a languid, disco-inflected rant against those who are “killing our last heaven beast.” Their lyrics are uniformly and hilariously overwrought, but the finest couplet has to be, “In the wake of our new age to stand for the frail/Don’t kill the whale.” In a time when Brit punk was at its ferocious apex, Yes’s tinny keys and imploding imagery was decidedly… not punk.