„DID YOU EVER STOP TO NOTICE“
Extinction is the order of the day: “Facing Extinction” advertises even an outdoor clothing retailer. The term is not merely one of climate discourse, but also of pop, see the death of punk, CD, music journalism anticipated at any time … October’s monthly focus, curated by Steffen Greiner, takes a look around this – with essays by Laura Aha and Jennifer Beck and images from Marie-Louise Häfner’s gloomy series “Excalibur City”.
In the opening essay, Steffen Greiner asks why climate movement and pop have so little to say to one another, even though at the moment pop is more political than it has been for a long time.
Pop was talking about the climate – once:
The “Earth Song”, ” Sonne statt Reagan” (Sun instead of Reagan), “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” …
Pop is talking about the climate – today:
Richie Hawtin compensates the CO2 of his flights.
DJ Shadow did a pretty horrible orchestral song about forest fires in California.
At the Reeperbahn Festival, Lubomyr Melnyk is standing in a church in his prophet’s shirt preaching long and loosely that the Greens are destroying the world with electric cars before he plays a piano piece in which the earth sings a mantra that life is beautiful, before it dies hissingly.
And then there is Anohni.
The world is talking about the climate, and it seems as though the contribution of the classic pop discourse is the marginal footnote. In the truest sense of the word: the world’s greatest pop star today has not attracted attention through music, and the fact that Greta Thunberg’s speech “How Dare You” works so perfectly in pop contexts is rather a contribution of pop to the mainstream discourses than, as it would traditionally be the case, that pop is the thing that penetrates the mainstream of discourses and changes them.
In early October at a gig in Gateshead, England, Fatboy Slim mixed the obvious sample of Thunberg’s speech into his 1999 hit”Right Here, Right Now”, a death metal version of the UN speech went viral.
Pop is chasing popularity as a gimmick. Beyond that, pop and the climate movement have little to say to each other.
The end of a salvation story
This isn’t just a strange moment in pop history – so far, protest and pop went hand in hand, stimulated each other, and often it was pop that ultimately gave the signal to really get going:
The ancestors range from the Marseillaise to the Halbstarken (Greasers), from “Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are Free) of the March Revolution to “I’ve Been Looking For Freedom” (well, kinda). Rap and punk are still, despite commercialization and rollbacks, allies of the anti-fascist milieu. The climate movement has not yet found such an almost natural relationship. No movement without an escalating concert, no political movement without a hymn. Is this where the salvation story of pop music comes to an end?
For some years now, one of the most ubiquitous phrases in this discourse has been that the relevance of pop is disappearing. While pop is closer to the present than it has been for a long time, the present finds its expression in other formats on Instagram or Youtube rather than in pop songs. But the other well-observed protest movement of this summer shows a different picture. In Hong Kong the singing of boy group-songs reinterpreted as resistance songs is one of the forms of protest, a specially composed anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” was performed illegally by a thousand people in a mall.
So the specific question is:
Why does the climate movement allow the pop discourses, which are currently more politicized than they have been for years, to pass by them? Why do they forego the proven effects? Where does this come from?
Two personal disclosures before this really gets started.
Firstly, even though this essay is about taking a critical look at the current climate movement (in its western form and with a focus on Germany), it does not mean that I consider the necessity of a climate movement to be wrong. I find the arguments very convincing that life on this earth will change brutally and that a large part of humanity, in the countries of the global South and in the future also in our latitudes, will not be able to survive the changes in living conditions. It is absolutely necessary to deal with this, also emotionally. The protest as well. It is ridiculous that the debate is so moronically charged that such a ‘confession of faith’ is absolutely necessary. After all, a few years ago I was able to take to the streets against the “Monday Demonstrations for Peace” without thinking world peace was shit. Shame on you, once again political right, for making “climate scepticism” a thing.
Second, I spent most of the summer helping to design and produce a book that is now available, called “When, if not us” as the “Extinction Rebellion Handbook”. This was above all a service of friendship and the allure of a challenge in bookmaking.
But then, of course, there was an emotional, identity-related part: I am often ashamed to not be an active part of protests as a very political person. The climate movement never spoke to me politically, but it gave me a chance to get involved in a position that matched my abilities, without suffering through the gruelling leftist debates about toxic masculinity and heroism. The post-hierarchical forms of organization seemed interesting enough to me to look beyond everything that annoyed me in terms of content.
Visiting the Third Position
What I came upon was: mistrust from the beginning of being an agent of left-wing radicalism, trying to infiltrate the movement because I also write for Jungle World. I found a highly aggressive atmosphere in which the name Gandhi was thrown into the face of co-discussers like a baseball. Predominantly at those who pointed out that police violence is real and that the phrase “Police we love you” is tricky for many people, for example PoCs. I experienced de-solidarizations with a victim of police violence, because the activist used the word “pigs” in his descriptions. And on the other hand i saw, esoteric transfiguration, with which people wanted to flood the world with “love” or invite the police into an “audience”.
Regardless of the discussions about the founder of the movement and his views on democracy, about sectarian structures, end-time beliefs or whatever else the left can criticize at XR, I am convinced: Although 80% of the Extinction Rebellion is populated by leftists, the remaining 20% set the tone, want to constantly erect walls to the left and fend off any attempt at demarcating to the right as left-wing radical nonsense that prevents winning over a “center”. For the movement, racism and sexism appear to be side contradictions, the same as the equality of men and women once appeared to the Marxist student movements, which can be resolved if the rebellion is successful and the world is saved.
While I am drafting this text – months later, after I had my first look back into the internal communication structure, based on a clone of the platform “Slack”, for research reasons – people praise KenFM, do not understand why some felt that the sign “Naturschutz ist Heimatschutz” (Nature Conservation is Heritage Protection), prominently placed at the Brandenburg Gate, is right wing, and demand “replies” from critical journalists left and right.
And then, one day after the Nazi terror in Halle, there was another post from a very active rebel, who said that “[t]he Jews would laugh up their sleeves” if there were vigils, because after all they had not been victims of the attacks. “Although one should call for the abolition of the intelligence service, which was apparently responsible for this.” Admittedly, there were dissenting votes. Five out of 550 people on the corresponding channel. And then, seriously, another activist threw himself into the breach, feeling the tone of the critics as aggressive, banning “call outs” and then, seriously, asked: “Maybe every should meditate for ten minutes and calm down” – and that’s apparently what happened.
So, this is the way in which a movement that sees itself as a “rebellion for the living” fights inhuman ideology: meditating anti-Semitism away. With all sympathy for the people I met in the movement and with all sympathy for civil disobedience – it became clear to me that this mixture of self-exaltation, apocalypticism and Third Position should not be successful in the long run. Looking back, I suspect that we have given a leftist fig leaf to it with this book.
Climate Policy as Identity Work
This has now become more than a preface, and what applies for Extinction Rebellion does not necessarily apply for Fridays for Future, which so far have not appeared to be open to the right. But the observations are at the heart of my query. For it is precisely these notions of who is the subject of the protests that are the reason why there does not seem to be any points of contact between pop and the climate movement.
I believe that the climate movement, as a constellation at precisely this time in precisely this demographic group, is a reaction to the dominance of identity discourses that pop has always developed, but which were at the foreground over the past decade. The climate movement is also at its core a discourse on identity and must be viewed from that perspective. The climate movement is the identity discourse of a majority group that fears for its representation and has found an outlet here to regain the prerogative of interpretation on what is important – and on what is cool.
To emphasize the identity-political side of the protests does not mean to deny the fact that we have already arrived at the age of pure damage control. But we have not only been in this position since this summer. A majority of scientists have known for decades that climate change is indeed becoming a threat, the mainstream has known at the latest since the Paris Climate Conference of 2015 created a stir. What has changed is not only the visibility of climate change, but also the social discourse. People with a less pronounced self-identity reacted particularly sensitively to this – it weren’t white racists and neo-Nazis who have, not without good reason, first noticed that the wind has changed and that – despite the still clear dominance of white men in most relevant areas – they will no longer be able to hold all positions in the society and the discourse. In the USA right-wing white men see themselves as victims of a genocide, in Germany they assume that they will be annihilated by the infamous “Umvolkung” (ethnic inversion). In fact, the white, male identity is under fire insofar as it must now share the space and there is no place for that in the self-image of these people.
Pop bids farewell to the White Man
In pop, too, for a long time the subject was a white man, and so were the protagonists. Everything that was a bit more cool about non-whites – rock’n’roll, blues, later hip-hop and techno – was appropriated by an interested white subculture and later by a white mainstream that was rather uninterested in the backgrounds. Apart from phenomena such as Dolly Parton or Carole King and individual female songwriters behind the scenes, such as Ellie Greenwich or Rose McCoy, women hardly played a role in the really big game off-stage for a long time. They were just allowed to sing songs that were put into their mouths by men. Queerness was barely utterable. That changed a lot in the eighties at the latest.
That Pop is a white man whose guitars are merely a weakly camouflaged omnipotent phallus was something even the rock star Kurt Cobain didn’t want to credibly convey any more. In the meantime, white men in pop are neither omnipotent nor phallic. In contrast to women like Vagabon or Mitski, they give a rather weak impression on the guitar, they have less to tell than Stella Donnelly or the gender-fluid Ezra Furman … Superstar to come King Princess explicitly makes music for a gay crowd and is genderqueer with a self-evidentness that makes the binary understanding of gender seem absurd. Kelela makes music explicitly for a crowd of color.
So far, it was easy to appropriate this coolness of the other. But the new understanding of identity in post-colonial and queer discourses is much more essential, goes back behind post-modern identities, and thus conquers space for the marginalized. The fact that conservative and regressive, progressive and resistant elements are able to balance each other out makes it so difficult for the dominant left-wing majority discourse to judge these tendencies. But this remains a fact: today, a hipster can no longer be a “white negro” as it was understood at the time of Normal Mailer in the 1950s; he is highly likely to remain a white Dude with a beard – and that’s that. Thus, being white loses the status of something special, the status of a center, of the central reference. Being white is not cool, being white requires self-reflection. This is also an experience of loss for left-wing, poststructuralist, anti-fascist whites of all sexes and sexual preferences.
The Empowerment of the Already Powerful
Right now, while Pop is renouncing the white majority, the conflict situation arose in which Greta, a pop star beyond pop, could appear, and who made white identification possible – as saviors of the world, protectors, omniscient, but also as victims, i.e. an identity that combined old elements of white supremacy with the new praise of victimization. Precisely because she does not play the white discourses offensively, but global ones, and because, as a woman herself, she is part of a group that is still neglected, she allows a non-right mainstream, which has lost importance within the pop system, a positive self-reference again. This does not make her meaning less relevant, it does not make it less valuable how gifted she appears, it does not make her struggle less important. Nevertheless, it is also a symptom of a general climate situation – and it is no coincidence that, with Luisa Neubauer and Carola Rackete, left-wing white women in Germany are also voices of the movement; there is obviously a desire for a heroine figure who becomes credible through minimal deviations, but who furthermore confirms the circumstances. The most important component of this political conflict situation is scientific knowledge and concern for the future of the earth. Part of this situation is also white identity politics.
“Identity politics that only revolve around themselves avail to nothing – it’s like sitting in a sun chair on the Titanic. What is the point of identity politics if they take place in an environment, a biosphere, that collapses over us,” asked the electro-pop artist Anohni in an interview that I conducted with her back in 2016 for Intro. In 2019 she writes something very similar for the Extinction Rebellion book.
The fact that Anohni, as one of the most visible trans persons in the world, expresses herself in this way is courageous and wise. In so doing, she is opposing the expectations placed on her to act as a spokeswoman. But when cis-people – heterosexuals, whites, men – use the same arguments to puff themselves up to reject justified demands for attention for transphobic – racist, homophobic, sexist – impulses, it gets nasty quickly. The left-wing objections to the new identity policies are set out in detail: They are sporadic, rely on pigeonholes instead of solidarity, they make the common struggle invisible to the visibility and the state of mind of individuals. With the argument of the impending end of mankind, a situation arises that plays into the hands of those who believe that it is not possible to combine identity games and radical system criticism.
The climate movement can thus be seen as another side of the coin of identity discourses. The question is whether it wants to be the opposite of these discourses, which silences people who, for the first time, have a voice, a visibility, also through the pop avant-garde. Otherwise there is a danger that the climate movement will become the left movement that throws an All Lives Matter back at a Black Lives Matter. The Extinction Rebellion, where people of color predominately occur in the form of endangered indigenous people who are to be protected, has a dangerous potential in its self-image of standing up for “the living”, regardless of whether it is a matter of pill bugs, vines or Bengalese, of which we must become aware. The Fridays For Future crowd itself is fortunately young enough that many things that could become critical can already be taken for granted. This does not mean that the need for identity work on the part of these people is satisfied, but makes it less precarious and dangerous. I am really looking forward to it, to their time. Which is coming.
The Aesthetics of the Crisis
It’s not pop’s job to resume classic white identity work in order to reconcile with the cool, likeable part of the white mainstream – the people who used to combine pop and climate, most recently Michael Stipe, clearly come from this field. Yet, pop is still needed, even in its most important sub-function: as music. You don’t have to ask for panic, as Greta Thunberg demand, or for hollow affective masks like XR, in order to realize that the climate catastrophe also has to be channelled emotionally – and thus also artistically.
How is the famous whimper going to sound, with which the world goes down that is not the bang?
How does the extinction of the species sound, how does the melting of the polar caps sound?
What does a forest fire sound like and what does famine sound like?
How can one sing protest without sounding like Dylan or Dota, heroes of the movement, still?
How do you dance the apocalypse?
A little summary to bring this to a close:
The loss of significance for pop is not only due to the fact that there are new distribution channels and new formats, not only to the fact that Youtubers and other social media celebrities communicate and offer identification differently than a song can. It is also based on the fact that pop for the first time does not want to offer this identification to the white mainstream of the middle class. Pop says goodbye to giving the “normals” a piece of something special and forces them to look for it somewhere else.
It is no coincidence that in this situation a climate movement that explicitly speaks of last chances, and thus emphasizes the importance of the moment and its activists, can fill this gap. A pop that neither confirms nor produces this identity is then simply obsolete in the lives of its representatives. So we are actually attending a historical moment. It may not be the end of the world conjured up, but it is the divorce from allies who have grown together: Pop and protest are no longer inevitably connected.
Translation by Denise Oemcke.