By Richard Lee
Finding a song to illustrate our second Media Across Disciplines essay of the summer is easy; finding the right song is a bit of a challenge.
In the essay, Status Quo or Silver Lining? Environmental Changes in a Pandemic, two sociology professors, Kathy Zawicki and Benjamin Gross, suggest that news reports, studies and polls show that the public’s commitment to the environment has increased during the pandemic.
Songs about the environment are plentiful, and I’d put Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) at the top of the list.
For Zawicki and Gross’ essay, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun might be an even better choice. Harrison’s lyrics about the joy of seeing the sun after “a long cold lonely winter” express a sentiment similar to the silver lining the two authors found in the pandemic (even if the song is as much about the Beatles’ internal struggles as it is about the weather).
But as good as Here Comes the Sun, Mercy Mercy Me and other songs about the environment are, the recording I find most appropriate to illustrate the Silver Lining essay is the title track from Neil Young’s 1970 After the Goldrush album.
For years, Young said little about the meaning of the song, but the line “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s,” which is sung twice, suggested that he was sounding an alarm about the environment – years before the term climate change became part of America’s vocabulary.
In Shakey: A Neil Young Biography written by Jimmy McDonough in 2002, Young acknowledged that After the Goldrush was an environmental song. McDonough’s book also explained that the song was inspired by the screenplay to a film (never made) that told an apocalyptic story.
The coronavirus pandemic is not an apocalypse, but it is surrealistic, and After the Goldrush is filled with surrealistic images. The lyrics describe silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun, a dream about knights in armor and a queen, and a band playing inside the narrator’s head. If Young were to write a new verse about people wearing masks and social-distancing, and others ignoring facts and science, it would fit in seamlessly with the words he wrote five decades ago.
But the song needs no changes to illustrate the central point of Zawicki and Gross’ essay. They see a silver lining and hope emerging from the pandemic. The middle verse of After the Goldrush tells that same story. It starts with despair; the narrator is lying in a burned-out basement, but when the morning sun bursts through the sky, he becomes more hopeful.
The song concludes with the narrator “flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home.” In Young’s 1970 lyrics, that new home was in the sun; in 2020 it may be much closer – in a non-physical place called Phase 4 Reopening.
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a former music journalist who often writes about the intersection of music and current events.