Being immersed in climate change news, policy, and science all day has rewired my brain. One example of this is the way my blood starts pumping whenever I hear there’s even a hint of a possibility that someone in popular culture has taken on the subject. Much has been written about the need for more coverage of the warming atmosphere, more movies and books, better storytelling, to help people process and confront the crisis upon us. There’s something exhausting about knowing that climate change is the ever-present backdrop to modern life, yet all but absent from cultural depictions of it.
So when I learned that Lorde was releasing a record called Solar Power, my anticipation soared through the roof. Would the world finally get a climate anthem to take into the streets? Would there be a chorus into which to channel all of my climate-related grief, frustration, and hope with the same catharsis as belting out “I still fucking love you” at the bridge of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License”? And if not an anthem, maybe, just maybe, would one of the most essential renewable-energy solutions to global warming get a theme song, as a treat?
My expectations weren’t entirely unfounded. The New Zealand pop star had, after all, advertised to fans a trip she took to Antarctica in 2019 to learn more about climate change. In a dispatch to her mailing list last year, Lorde said she began working on a new album after the excursion, calling the continent a “great white palette cleanser, a sort of celestial foyer I had to move through in order to start making the next thing.” She published a book of writing and photos from the trip, donating the proceeds to a fund that would support climate research in Antarctica.
Lorde has also been publicly reckoning with the carbon footprint that comes with her gig. “I’m a pop star, and I drive this massive machine that takes resources and spits out emissions — I’m under no illusion about that,” she told Billboard earlier this year. Instead of releasing Solar Power on CD, she put out a “music box,” a plastic-free package of her writings, photos, a poster, and a download link. Her merch store now features T-shirts made from “100% recycled US-grown cotton.”
Then there’s the Jack Antonoff factor. Lorde’s co-producer, who also worked on her previous album, Melodrama, has long been into the big, stadium rock sound and songs with inspirational refrains. Take his first breakthrough single with the band Fun., “We Are Young.” At the chorus, the music slows to a march as many voices sing out in unison, “Tonight, we are young. So let’s set the world on fire, we can burn brighter than the sun.” His other band, Bleachers, specializes in irresistible clap-your-hands-and-sing-along hooks. Surely that skill set, paired with Lorde’s emotionally urgent writing, could produce at least one song to rev people up about cutting carbon.
That calculus, however, turned out to be off.
In June, when Lorde released a video for the title track — which is about the joy of summer, not photovoltaic cells — she told fans in her newsletter, “The album is a celebration of the natural world, an attempt at immortalizing the deep, transcendent feelings I have when I’m outdoors.” But now that the rest of the songs are out, it’s hard to find much evidence of that celebration outside of the album’s beachy, blissed-out sound. Gone are the electronic beats; feverish, driving buildups; and angst of past hits like “Green Light.” Instead, Solar Power washes over you like a warm summer breeze, evoking the feeling of spending a day lying lazily by the ocean. In the lyrics, Lorde spends more time processing her past and playing up her new, chill outlook on life than memorializing nature or grappling with its slow destruction.
There are two songs on the 12-track album where Lorde does make the attempt. In “Fallen Fruit,” she addresses the “ones who came before us,” accusing them of ruining the world for future generations. “You’ll leave us dancing on the fallen fruit,” she croons. In “Leader of a New Regime,” she asks whether “somebody, anybody” will lead us into a better future, and flirts with a far-fetched alternative: escaping to an island sanctuary to live out the rest of her days. Neither song is a banger or even has a clear hook. I’ll be surprised if either makes it to the radio, let alone the streets.
To be fair, Lorde warned months ago that Solar Power was not going to be her “big climate change record.” “I’m not a climate activist, I’m a pop star,” she told the Guardian. She’s said more about this since its release. “In making an album about the environment, something that was weighing on my mind was the fact that we are in the midst of a very serious climate crisis,” she wrote in a Spotify Stories feature for the album. “It’s tricky to know how much to go there as a songwriter, you know?”
Ultimately, she didn’t really “go there,” at least not in any way that resonates with me — but I don’t fault her for that. There’s already so much pressure on artists like Lorde to deliver hit songs, manage their images, please their massive fan bases. For Lorde, who had her first chart-topping hit at the age of 16, that pressure was levied before she even finished high school and knew who she was or wanted to be. If she’s not ready to take on the added weight of wading into climate politics, who am I to blame her?
At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the power that people in Lorde’s position have to inspire and influence. On Solar Power, she tries to downplay this power quickly. “If you’re looking for a savior, that’s not me,” she sings in the first song, “The Path.” “People in my position are not going to be the ones to save us all spiritually,” she told USA Today recently.
But many people do look to music for spiritual guidance and to artists to help them make sense of the world. I wouldn’t expect Lorde’s climate anthem to save anyone or solve anything, but rather than wallowing in the “fallen fruit,” she could help listeners imagine a better future.
That kind of forward-looking narrative is a key feature for socially important anthems, according to the musicology professor Shana L. Redmond. Journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis spoke to Redmond on a recent episode of the climate solutions podcast How To Save a Planet about where anthems come from and why there’s no good contender for a climate anthem yet. Pierre-Louis struck on one obvious reason why my hope for a pop climate hit may be misplaced: “How many popular musicians are, like, steeped in the everyday activity of movement building?”
And yet, there’s something about Solar Power that still feels like a letdown. Maybe it’s the moment. If the record had been released in May, just after I had been vaccinated, before wildfire season had started, as the weather was getting warmer and the prospect of a lazy beach day with friends was within reach, it might have hit differently. But hearing it now, as COVID-19 cases and deaths are spiking again, as the West is perpetually shrouded in smoke and the drought threatens to spark water wars, as an active hurricane season is bearing down and the U.S. government has not yet managed to pass meaningful legislation to address climate change, the album comes off as tone deaf. It promotes the palliative power of escape at a time when it’s becoming increasingly impossible to get away from these crises, even for a day, unless you have enough money to insulate yourself.
Despite all that, there is one song on the album that could be an unintentional contender for a climate anthem. After listening to the album for three days straight, I found myself grooving around the house singing the end of the title track, a catchy harmony with artists Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo where Lorde exuberantly sings the words “solar power” over and over for about a minute. I could immediately imagine that refrain blasting out of a loudspeaker at a climate rally or at the unveiling of a new solar-powered school. The next time you need a lift from your climate gloom, you might try putting it on and reminding yourself that all is not lost, we do have solutions. We just need to get to work deploying them.