Changing Everything: Music, Love, and Climate Change

Popular music can support efforts to respond to the challenges of global climate change – not with lyrics about carbon dioxide and fossil fuel, but with a religious power that calls people to change their lives and love the world.

At the right time and place, music can invoke a sacred imperative. In terms of Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of religion, it is an imperative to transform oneself: “you must change your life.” A concert, a song, or even just a lyric can facilitate a transformation in the way you think, feel, and act. For instance, numerous people use popular music to help themselves exercise. Imagine the numerous people at gyms who support their focus and energy by listening to hip-hop, dance, and rock songs on their smartphones or Internet radio. In a different context, imagine someone listening to a song to get motivated before an interview for a new job (or get motivated to quit their job). Perhaps most life-changing of all, music can set moods for love, which is to say, music can become conducive to the deepening of intimate relationships. This means more than saying that music is conducive to the intimate interpersonal connections that make up human-to-human love. It also indicates the possibility that music can be conducive to a more comprehensive sense of love, something like what Hannah Arendt calls amor mundi, love of the world.

Can music facilitate love for the world? Are there examples of music invoking an imperative to change your life and love the world? This is not merely a sentimental or romantic question. It is an urgent question of great practical importance. It is a question that bears upon the response of humans to the planetary challenges of our time, of which one of the most pressing concerns is global climate change.

Economic growth in recent decades has taken place at the expense of the integrity of the planet’s climate, using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for the carbon dioxide emitted through the exorbitant use of fossil fuels. That model of economic growth is focused on profit, not on the well-being of people or of the other inhabitants and habitats of Earth. Naomi Klein demonstrates in her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, that much more is needed to respond to climate change than simply new technologies and new policies. What more is needed? You must change your life! More specifically, there needs to be a transformation of the individualistic and hierarchical worldview that supports consumerism and corporate capitalism. Such a transformation would open up to more egalitarian and relational values, which situate individual concerns in relation to the concerns of other people and of the community of life on Earth. In short, what is needed is a transformation from the loneliness of individualism to the intimacy of love.

Is there evidence in popular music of a life-changing imperative to love the world? Perhaps it seems doubtful, given the preponderance of pop songs that focus exclusively on interpersonal love. Even if the focus is on sex or other material or embodied aspects of love, that love is rarely opened up beyond interpersonal relations. One could try to extrapolate and find the natural world hidden in lyrics, like Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder,” which opens with an injunction to “take my breath” and “let me invade your space.” However, space and breath metaphors hardly qualify as a call to love the world or cultivate any kind of intimacy with terrestrial or cosmic realities.

A closer approximation of amor mundi can be heard in the cosmological perspective of Shakira’s “Empire,” where she sings of a uniting of the world’s empires taking place in the embrace of cosmic love: “Like the empires of the world unite/ We are alive/ And the stars make love to the universe.”

Justin Timberlake’s “Spaceship Coupe” also takes a cosmological perspective. For example, instead of trying to find his beloved in outer space, the lyrics suggest that he is trying to find outer space in his beloved, “trying to find an alien in you.” Furthermore, the point is not simply to find in the beloved a being from outer space but to explore space together, “to turn out this space with you.” Regrettably, Timberlake’s coupe only has “room for two,” failing to provide mass transit for other terrestrial and extraterrestrial beings, and when the coupe lands on the Moon it is so that the lovers can “make love on the Moon,” not so that they might turn around and look at the beauty of Earth, such as is depicted in the famous “Earthrise” photograph.

A worldly love can be heard in “Love Natural” by the alternative dance band Crystal Fighters, who express the time of love in terms of an encounter with the vitality of nature: “Life is upon us and the time for love is here and now.” While there are many “I” and “You” references, it is ambiguous if the “you” is another person or if it is the more cosmic force of love natural: “Oh, love natural, I can’t believe how you do it to me.” In this context, nature’s wonders are not for landing on and copulating on. They are there to be contemplated and experienced on their own terms: “Flyin’ through the skies we’ve never seen before…Sailin’ all the seas we’ve never seen before.”

Björk expresses an even more explicitly cosmic sense of love. For Björk, love is not restricted to interpersonal sources. “It’s all around you. All is full of love.” This is particularly evident throughout her album Biophilia. Indeed, the very title of that album indicates her sense of a love (philia) that intimately intertwines humans with all life (bios). Björk’s music is an exemplary instance of art that issues forth an imperative to change your life, to intimately entangle yourself with the entire web of life and the whole cosmos.

In contrast to the experimental electronica of Björk’s expression of amor mundi, a cosmic intimacy also finds expression in an acoustic song by the alternative rock singer/songwriter Stuart Davis: “Universe Communion.” The lyrics open with a reflection on the fact that an indigenous people of Africa, the Dogon, have highly sophisticated astronomical knowledge without the need for modern scientific instruments. The connection between humans and the light of distant stars harbors a sacred imperative that calls for humans to realize a profound intimacy that connects all beings into a single whole, in which Earth will find its own perfection.

If a message from a distant sun can reach us
There is a magic that is waiting and is willing to teach us
How to suture every soul into one concentric whole
Earth will find a perfect union
In a universe communion

Such a cosmically comprehensive intimacy breaks through the individualist vise of consumerism with cosmically expansive love. Musical expressions of amor mundi open opportunities for people to commit acts of sharing, caring, and other egalitarian and relational gestures that would enact sustainable, just, and peaceful responses to the challenges of climate change. When music calls us to love the world, it changes everything. Can you think of examples from your own experience when a lyric, a melody, or a beat changed your life? What music inspires you to care for the world? And is that care – that amor mundi – enough to change the world?

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