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"It's Brutal Out Here"
A theme for 2021
As the year draws to a close, I've found that I've developed a new catch phrase... courtesy of Olivia Rodrigo. "It's brutal out here." When there is a snowstorm in Texas? When there is a heat dome oppressing the Pacific Northwest? When there is a massive wildfire in Colorado in December? "It's brutal out here."
If you haven't heard of Olivia Rodrigo, well, I'll actually congratulate you for staying off the internet this year; your social media habits are undoubtedly better than mine! For the uninitiated, Olivia Rodrigo is 18 years old, and her debut album was this year's most streamed album on Spotify, as well as the #2 Billboard best-selling album of 2021. Her first song "drivers license" has been streamed over a billion times and was so big it got its own SNL sketch. She went to the White House to help President Biden reach young people. Maybe you saw something about her role in the Disney show "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series," her rumored ex-boyfriend/co-star, and a "blonde girl?" Long story short — Olivia ruled 2021.
If your biggest source of pop culture news is Climate Culture, than you might not know her, because her album came out before this column did! However, I'm still going to give her music the ol' Climate Culture treatment anyway, because her song "brutal", more so than her blockbuster "drivers license", or Lorde's climate album, or anything else we've reviewed this year, is the song that sums up 2021.
"Brutal" is about the struggles of being 17 in this day and age. But it is also a song that sums up the feeling of being someone who cares about the climate in 2021. I mean, just try these lines on for size:
"I'm anxious and nothing can help"
"All I did was try my best/
This the kind of thanks I get?/
They say these are the golden years/
But I wish I could disappear"
"And lately, I'm a nervous wreck"
"And God, I don't even know where to start"
Of course we can't forget — "It's brutal out here." It's the climate line so potent that the Sunrise Movement is using it for their year end fundraising campaign.
Why does "brutal" sum up our life so well? This is my first year writing about the intersections of climate and pop culture, so I can't say I'm a seasoned expert. Nevertheless, I've been concerned about the climate crisis since I was in elementary school. And I've loved pop culture since then too — when I started watching The West Wing and listening to Fearless by Taylor Swift. As I have transitioned from simple appreciation to deeper engagement with pop cultural art this year, though, one thing has stood out to me.
I always try to make things hopeful, but the art that people have seemed to respond to most is that which tells it like it is. The art that lays it all bare, no holds barred. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the climate activist community's response to Don't Look Up, which I reviewed last week. The activist community is enamored with it precisely because of its unflinching look — just see this piece in The Guardian by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. And it's not just climate scientists who respond to the cold hard truth. Right now, the movie is sitting at number one on Netflix.
"Brutal" is my Climate Culture theme to 2021, because Olivia Rodrigo is not here to sugarcoat anything. Life has been tough, and we're scared and angry and fed up. Whether you consider yourself an activist or not, if you're someone who cares about the climate crisis, it's impossible to avoid these feelings. I mean this year saw hurricanes, droughts, literal firestorms and an ocean on fire, and a total lack of federal action. "God, it's brutal out here."
So, as 2021 draws to a close, I am not here to sugarcoat anything either. We need action now. Desperately. That doesn't mean that I do not still see hope, though. While the pop culture that defines the year has lacked silver linings, the response to it is full of them. The fact that a dire movie like Don't Look Up is number one on Netflix is the real story, not the movie itself. This year we've seen people really grapple with the gravity of the climate crisis like never before, and if we felt that despair collectively, I know we can organize that collective into an unstoppable movement.
So, get ready to rock 2022. Hit up On the Level’s groundbreaking Climate Action Explorer, with over 700 ways to join the climate movement, and stream the official 2021 Climate Culture playlist with all our featured songs to inspire you (if you're curious how any relate to the climate crisis, just consult our Climate Culture archives.)
Lastly, I started this newsletter, because I am passionate about addressing the climate crisis and pop culture. I believe that pop culture can be an entry point to the climate movement. As the climate crisis worsens, I also believe that incorporating it will be crucial to keeping pop culture relevant. This year, I've discussed music, movies, television shows, a book, articles and publications, even news from the House floor. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. It's given me so much joy to discover new art each week, think more deeply about what drives us to act on climate, and share with you.
Until next year,