Greta Thunberg features on a new track by The 1975 – but it doesn’t sit right with me

“The 1975” is just another example of performative activism for the sake of cultural capital. 

 

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“We are right now in the beginning of a climate and ecological crisis, and we need to call it what it is: an emergency. We must acknowledge that we do not have the situation under control, and we don’t have all the solutions yet, unless the solutions mean that we simply stop doing certain things.”

This is not the start of a speech, but the start of a song. These are the words of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who is fast becoming the most inspirational figure of our times. The song is “The 1975”, a new track from pop-rock troubadours of the same name (a different song with this same title begins all of their albums). The band are, in their own way, looked up to as icons of non-conformity.

But The 1975’s grand gesture of activism doesn’t sit right with me.

Yes, I am pleased that the severity of the climate crisis is an issue that is infiltrating popular culture. Yes, I understand that pop music is a great tool to reach people who would not usually pay attention to environmental issues. And yes, The 1975, with 683,900 Twitter followers, 8 million monthly Spotify listeners and three UK number 1 albums, have the following to make a great difference.

But “The 1975” is just another example of the performative activism for the sake of cultural capital. Much like the act of posting a photo to Instagram of an environmental protest you spent five minutes at before going to find a Pret, or wearing an Extinction Rebellion pin-badge just because you like the design, The 1975 have, with “The 1975”, meekly dipped their toe into an issue without dedicating themselves to active, worthy change.

Admittedly, it’s not just the song. The 1975 and their label Dirty Hit have admirably taken some practical steps to minimise their environmental impact. Dirty Hit no longer using single-use plastic CD jewel cases, and using only lightweight vinyl. Its CDs and vinyl are packaged in paper rather than non-biodegradable shrink wrap. These are all small but thoughtful measures that others in the music industry should take note of.

But if they really did want to work towards halting the increasing temperature of our planet, The 1975 would go one step further. They would refuse to use aeroplanes and large tour buses to travel to their many international gigs (their 22-date US tour earlier this year likely released a few emissions), or boycott ethically unsound companies who encourage an avid consumerism, such as O2, whose London arena The 1975 played two dates at this January. More drastically, they would re-think their current practice and resist huge arena tours – where they invite hundreds of thousands of fans, who will litter the arena with non-reusable plastic, to travel vast distances, too – altogether.

If it seems extreme to expect a band to reassess common touring practices, look to Thunberg herself, who meets a full touring schedule with activists, politicians and the media all over Europe while travelling solely by train: it is possible to keep up public appearances by using public transport. In the collaborative song the band have self-indulgently put just their own name to, Thunberg says, “it is time for civil disobedience / It is time to rebel.” She is calling for extreme tactics, and The 1975 aren’t listening closely enough.

It’s understandable that these initiatives can only come into place one at a time rather than all at once – real change does take time. But it seems suspicious timing that it is in this moment, as the climate crisis has become the hot topic for all young, trendy progressives – that they choose to join the party.

The band are, at Thunberg's request, donating all proceeds from “The 1975” to Extinction Rebellion, and rightly so – it is better that the campaign receives this money to continue their imperative work than not at all. But this is about more than money: for a band as hugely successful and glossy as The 1975, it’s difficult not to see this sudden interest in the environment as a vanity project. It’s about the band’s image and reputation, both of which have been bolstered by inviting Thunberg onto their track. “The 1975” is also the track that has launched, and made heads turn towards, news of the band’s forthcoming album, Notes on a Conditioning Form. And I doubt they will be giving all financial proceeds from that record and tour cycle to the cause.

What’s more, it’s an act that seems weirdly self-aggrandising. Thunberg provides almost all of the song’s interest. All that lies beyond her – and all The 1975 can take credit for – is a twinkling of minimal orchestral backing, which grows with slightly more intrigue towards the climax of the track, following the speech's dramatic impetus. The ideas she speaks of are her own, her words are her own, and she uses her own voice. All The 1975 have done is provide a repetitive, uninteresting instrumental backing – yet it is their band name emblazoned on the track title.

Thunberg is a force on her own – she doesn’t need The 1975 to help promote her message. And The 1975 should know better than to take advantage of her self-earned success and spin it to fit their own performative agenda. They have a long way to go before they become the figureheads for climate-friendly rock.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.

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