Psychedelic poster of a man flying through space above a lake and island dotted landscape.
September 18, 2023

Building An Environmental Playlist

Rating: G

In preparation for We Tried To Warn You! Environmental Crisis Posters, 1970–2020, we asked guest curator Tim Medland to compile a playlist of environmental-themed songs that visitors could listen to both in the galleries and at home. Here, he shares his thoughts while researching and building that playlist. 

Take a look, take a look up to the sky,

Pretty soon, pretty soon we all gonna die.”

It is hard to believe that anyone would dance to these words, and yet … weird as it may sound, a few days ago I found myself dancing (so very badly) to this opening stanza to a song with a driving funky beat called “Pollution” by Bo Diddley from 1971. I had started compiling a playlist of environmental songs to accompany Poster House’s new show We Tried to Warn You! Environmental Crisis Posters, 1970-2020, and had run straight into some very sad, pious songs that sapped both my energy and interest in the project. Then I found Bo! 

I suppose the first question would be why compile a playlist of environmental songs anyway? There were two main reasons. Firstly, many museums are frequently a bit too hushed for my tastes, especially if I am visiting by myself. In those instances, a little background music is no bad thing, especially if it is appropriatly adding to the mood and narrative.

Secondly, when I was researching for We Tried to Warn You (curators read a lot), I was struck by a paragraph written by the environmentalist Bill McKibben: “Science and economics have no real way to value the fact that people have lived for millenia in a certain rhythm, have eaten the food and sung the songs of certain places that are now disappearing. This is a cost that only art can measure, and it makes sense that the units of that measurement are sadness and fury-and also, remarkably, hope.”

Music is the universal language and a manifestation of popular culture—so I wanted to see if there was an upsurge in environmental songs in 1970, when the EPA came into being and, coincidentally, the starting date of our show. Spoiler alert: yes!

In “Trenchtown Rock,” Bob Marley wrote, “one good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain”—and it is interesting how so many musicians have managed to register somber concern, even angst, while maintaining the vibrancy, rhythm, and fun that characterizes modern music. This mirrors how posters work: the message has to be snappy and persuasive. Berating your public would be counterproductive.

This playlist has ended up comprising 44 songs, with a play time of just over three hours. While I would expect people to be out of the actual show in 30 minutes, it will most likely tempt you back. The songs I’ve chosen cover all genres: folk—as the American grandfather of protest songs—country, hip-hop, reggae, electronica, new wave, classical, and soul. Some of my favorite songs in the collection are from Mali, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire. 

If you are like me, sometimes you are taken with the sound of a song without listening too deeply to the lyrics. As such, I was surprised to realize that well-known classics like “Mercy, Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye and “Nothing but Flowers” by the Talking Heads were environmental anthems. Rediscovering songs, finding new ones, and actually listening to the lyrics has been one of the pleasures of this project. One of the other joys of the broader Poster House environmental exhibition has been finding organizations such as Cape Farewell, which exists to create a cultural response to climate change and, as such, act as a catalyst by producing opportunities for scientists, communities, and artists to work together—all of which ties back in to Bill McKibben’s commentary. 

I hope you have fun listening to our playlist, and should you find yourself dancing in the gallery while enjoying it on your personal device, go ahead, I won’t judge.