Musicians command fame and adoration from millions of fans across the world. They’re interviewed on television, hired to perform at the speeches of world leaders, and their songs are heard by countless people decades after their death. Singer and head songwriter of English rock band Radiohead, Thom Yorke, is acutely aware of the responsibility such notoriety brings, and has often spoken and campaigned on his anti-war and environmentalist views with passion.
Songwriting, though, is trickier. Yorke himself has said that it’s harder to write political songs now than in the ’60s, when artists and the public were generally united against the Vietnam War.
“If I was going to write a protest song about climate change in 2015,” Yorke said in an interview with George Monbiot, “It would be s---.”
So instead, he released one in 2016 with “The Numbers” on Radiohead’s ninth album, “A Moon Shaped Pool.”
Debuting the song at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Yorke and Radiohead channeled the anti-war themes of “Hail to the Thief” to create a more subtly political song, one that laments the dangers of climate changes without name-dropping the issue.
“We are of the Earth,” Yorke warns us in the song. “To her we do return.”
The following line mirrors his own admitted anxiety over not doing enough to fight climate change: “The future is inside us / It’s not somewhere else.” Like the mood of the song itself, the line is simultaneously empowering and dire; who will rise up to curb the damage governments, corporations, and even individuals inflict on the environment if not us?
Throughout the song, Yorke’s voice sings “One day at a time” in the background, again reinforcing this dual message. We only have to tackle the issue one day at a time, but we have to commit to taking it seriously.
The song is at its most frank in the second verse when Yorke sings “We call upon the people / People have this power” over the bellowing string section.
In starting a commitment to “carbon neutral” tours in 2008, Radiohead cut back on how much it used wasteful equipment and drove to concerts, opting to switch to all LED lighting and playing at venues that were more easily accessible by public transit. For Yorke, becoming a vegetarian was one way that he showed “people have this power” to fight climate change.
Yorke sings about the “river running dry” and “the wings of a butterfly,” possibly alluding to the Butterfly Effect, which posits that pollution in one country harms the ecosystem of another halfway across the world. A more positive interpretation of the lyrics reminds us that one person’s commitment to conservation can inspire many others.
The song ends with “We’ll take back what is ours / Take back what is ours / One day at a time,” a firmly optimistic cap that brings the message of the song home: It may be difficult, but we have to work together to fight this problem, and we will.
In his interview with Monbiot, Yorke openly admitted that one song is not going to change anyone’s mind. Monbiot’s insightful response was that art can “create an almost subliminal sense of change throughout society; a sense that something has shifted and that if you don’t go with that flow … you’re going to start looking very old fashioned.”
By reminding us of these problems through songs, musicians can normalize these issues and make them acceptable to talk about. In a sense, they help remind us that changing the world doesn’t need to be a lofty, grand ambition; it’s something every person can do on a small scale.
Or, as Radiohead puts it, “The future is inside us. It’s not somewhere else.”
Reach columnist Alex Bruell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BruellAlex