The 1975: Music Meets Activism

On November 16th, I attended the first of The 1975’s two shows in Camden, New Jersey. It was the band’s first night at BB&T Pavilion, and it marked the beginning of their highly anticipated North American tour. Because The 1975 has not toured in America since before the release of their last album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (2018), I was extremely excited to finally see them perform their new songs live. Recently, the band also released three songs off of their upcoming album, Notes on a Conditional Form (scheduled for release on February 21, 2020), which added to audiences’ anticipation for this tour.

I want to draw attention to one of these three songs in particular: “The 1975.” Since the 2013 release of their self-titled album The 1975, the band has begun each subsequent record with their iconic self-titled track. Until now, the lyrics of this song have remained the same; it has just been re-recorded in the musical style of each respective album. Because three records have followed this format, fans assumed that when the band released “The 1975” as part of Notes on a Conditional Form in July, it would be a fourth version of the beloved intro song. They were wrong.

The newest version of “The 1975” is not really a song at all, at least not in the conventional sense. Instead, it is a speech by environmental activist Greta Thunberg set over ambient piano music. The 5-minute track calls attention to the current climate crisis and the importance of individual action toward the implementation of systematic change. In her speech, Thunberg emphasizes that in order to prevent another 1.5 degree increase of global warming, we need to significantly decrease our greenhouse gas emission. In fact, the speech is a call to action; it ends with the lines, “It is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.”

Online media magazine Consequence of Sound called this track a risk — and it was exactly that. The band couldn’t have predicted how fans and casual listeners alike would receive the song. However, “The 1975” was praised by multiple well-known magazines, including Elle and The Guardian.

What’s even riskier is that The 1975 is playing this track as a portion of their set during tour. As someone who’s seen the band multiple times before, I was surprised that they chose to play the speech in full. The most political statement I had seen The 1975 make at a concert before was showing their support for the LGBT+ community; they often perform their song “Loving Someone” in front of a rainbow set design and bring fans’ pride flags on stage. At this show, however, during Greta’s speech, the band took attention away from themselves by having every light in the venue turned off - except for a series of large screens that displayed the words. During the show, frontman Matty Healy commented that because the band has released so many songs, choosing a setlist can be extremely difficult. It’s easy to imagine that this band, with well over 60 songs in their discography, could replace the 5 minutes it takes to play Greta’s speech with one or two other fan-favorite tracks.

While some critics boiled the release of “The 1975” down to “performative activism,” I think the band’s inclusion of the track in their limited setlist speaks to their dedication to battling the climate crisis. Some may claim that playing a political speech during a concert will not actually impact the movement. However, this speech is showing thousands of people the importance of being active members of society. If this message is reaching people who were previously uneducated about the topic, then that isn't nothing. If anything, The 1975 is setting a precedent others should follow.

In fact, Shawn Mendes recently took to Instagram in a similar fashion, posting a picture of himself on stage holding a guitar with the words “Climate Action Now” written across the back. Again, critics may claim that celebrities are attempting to be politically woke for praise. But even if that’s the case, it disregards the fact that celebrities using their platforms to advocate for important causes can have a large impact. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that music has historically been a powerful tool for political change, especially by raising awareness of injustice. 

As Thunberg says in “The 1975,” “all the big changes in society have been started by people at the grassroots level — people like you and me.” Statements like the one The 1975 is making through this song help spread an important message to thousands of people. We are the future, but we need access to knowledge to be successful. Political activism like this may not be the strongest way to support the movement; however, it is impossible to deny that it’s a strong first step. After all, not many celebrities use their platforms to advocate for political movements, so there is something to say about those who do.