The Hottest 100 is hot. Hot songs at the hottest time of year. It used to be that we listened outside around the barbie. Recently, we’ve had to listen inside because it’s too darn hot, or the air was too full of smoke to breathe.

This year, thankfully, the weather was cooler, even if the winner might have been less so! Lost in the hubbub surrounding The Wiggles’ win, a brilliant new website – Our Subversive Voice – was launched investigating the last 420 years of English protest music. This massive body of research leads to an almost intuitively basic conclusion: songs are critical in cultural and political movements.

Right now arguably the overarching movement of our times is environmental.

Given the potency of music to affect change, our scene has an incredible responsibility… and opportunity. Luckily, if you’re fired up about protecting our precious blue orb, there’s some great initiatives afoot that are worth supporting. 

The world’s first $20,000 Environmental Music Prize aimed at amplifying the voices of artists who inspire action for climate and conservation is launching in Australia this year before going global next year.

It’s open for applications until Friday, 18th February and the public will be invited to vote for their favourite song in the coming months.

In parallel, Green Music Australia will be relaunching a No Music On a Dead Planet campaign in time for the (now likely) May federal election. Overseas, it saw prominent artists like Billie Eilish wear the t-shirt and we’ll likely be seeing some of our local stars back the movement.

Music moves the masses. 

It’s why every nation has an anthem; why despots like Hitler and Stalin policed and censored artists; why Hillsong is the fastest growing church. More than just a clever marketing tool, good songs capture the mood of the moment, bring people together and distil ideas into memorable cultural artefacts, multi-generational memes that over time have the potential to influence the course of history.

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The First Peoples of this continent knew better than most the power of music. Singing up country, they created intricate Songlines that helped them, amongst other things, navigate vast stretches of land and trade with distant neighbours, building trust and knowledge. 

In more recent times, Australian musicians have used music and lyrics to help us face up to uncomfortable truths like the Stolen Generation with Archie Roach’s ‘Took the Children Away’ or gender inequality with Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’.

The environment has had its champions too, with acts like Midnight Oil and John Butler, but for years ‘tree-hugging’ themes were seen as the domain of a handful of musos. No longer.

John Butler on climate change
John Butler

From hip-hop to sludge metal, the most unsuspecting of artists are turning their planetary concerns into provocative songs. While much of this music might not yet be in the Hottest 100, they’re deservedly gaining cult appeal.

We need music to help us grapple with the uncertainty and madness of living through a climate emergency. But what we sing about doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. We need hopeful messages and audio hugs as much as dire warnings. After all, how can we build a better world if we can’t imagine what it’ll look like?

As well as writing homages to Planet Earth, we should be looking for new ways to harness our immense social influence to inspire political action.

For those who flinch at the “P” word (politics), it’s worth remembering that it’s governments who control the levers of our economy, who fund (and then subsequently defund) crucial, albeit flawed schemes like JobKeeper, and who can ensure we plan for crises rather than stumble through them, hurting the most vulnerable in our community. 

The time to act was yesterday, so if you’re feeling inspired, check out the Environmental Music Prize and add your name to the No Music on a Dead Planet Climate Declaration so we can keep you in the loop as plans progress and support artists who are using their voice to advance the critical conversations of our times.

Berish Bilander is a composer, pianist and CEO of Green Music Australia, a non-profit dedicated to helping the music scene reduce its environmental impact. He has toured extensively with his own ensembles and as a freelance musician for bands like Vika and Linda Bull, and dedicated his activist life to climate and social justice – fighting back toll-roads and campaigning for refugee rights.

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