Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
So, it’s definite then
It’s written in the stars, darlings
Everything must come to an end – Susanne Sundfør
I first learned about the climate crisis in 2008, as an undergrad at Hunter College, in a class called The History and Science of Climate Change. For the next decade I would struggle with how to process and act on the scientific paradigm shift climate change required: that human activity could disrupt the climate system and create a planetary ecosystem shift making Earth uninhabitable to human life. I became a climate justice activist and attempted to work directly on The Problem which was actually, as philosopher Timothy Morton writes, a hyperobject, something so systemic and enormous in size and scope as to be almost unintelligible to human awareness. I’ve cycled through probably every single response a person could have to this knowledge, despair, ecstasy, rage, hope. I’ve landed somewhere close to what I might call engaged bewilderment. For me, his particular locale has a soundtrack, and it’s Susanne Sundfør’s cinematic dance dystopia Ten Love Songs, an album that tells a story of love and loss in the Anthropocene. Sundfør is a sonic death doula for the Neoliberal project, with a uniquely Scandinavian version of bleak optimism. To truly grapple with this time of escalating transition, we need to really face what is, not what we hope or fear will be, but what is actually happening. A throbbing beat with shimmering synths around which to orient your dancing mortal envelope can’t hurt.
Susanne Sundfør’s Ten Love Songs was released a few days after Valentine’s Day in February of 2015, six months after I had been organizing Buddhists and meditators for the Peoples Climate March. I was already a fan, having first heard her voice as part of her collaboration with dreamy synth-pop outfit m83 on the Oblivion soundtrack. Oblivion was visually striking but felt like a long music video. The soaring synths and Sundfør’s powerful voice drove the plot more than the acting, though I loved how Andrea Riseborough played the tragic character Vika, whose story could have been more central to the plot but was sidelined for a traditional Tom Cruise romantic centerpiece. But since the movie was almost proud of its style over investment in substance, the music stood out. The soundscapes were as expansive as the green-screened vistas of 2077 in the movie. It was just nostalgic enough while also feeling totally new, a paradox encapsulated in the name of m83’s similarly wistful and sweeping Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. I am not exempt from taking comfort in style that signifies a previous era, and I am also not alone in it. It’s a huge industry, and while the MAGA-style yearning for a previous era is one manifestation, maybe there are ways to acknowledge culture as cyclical in a way that doesn’t sacrifice traditional knowledge to some imagined myth of perpetual progress.
When Ten Love Songs came out the following year, I listened to it on repeat for days. Sundfør seemed to have absorbed the music-driven sci-fi into a concept album, with m83 providing her with a whole new panopoly of sounds at her disposal. Like Oblivion, Ten Love Songs told the story of a future dystopia with high speed chases, nihilistic pleasure-seeking and operatic decadence against a backdrop of technocratic inequality. It mixed electro-pop with chamber music and I listened to it on a Greyhound ride to Atlantic City in the middle of snowy February. I hadn’t felt like this since high school, that a full album was a sort of soundtrack to my own life, which I could experience as cinematic in some way while the music was playing. This situated me in my own story, of studying climate change as an undergrad and graduating into a financial collapse, working as a personal assistant to an author writing about ecological collapse and ritual use of psychedelics, to joining a Buddhist community and organizing spiritual activists around climate justice.
Ten Love Songs is a breakup album, with lyrics telling of endings and running out of time. But it didn’t read to me as an album about a single human romantic relationship coming to an end. It felt like a series of vignettes about the planet and its ecosphere breaking up with us, all of us. People. Some songs like Accelerate, one of the album’s singles, throb in an anthem to nihilistic numbness and speeding up into a catastrophe that feels inevitable. Fade Away is a bit lighter, tonally and lyrically, (and if you listen, please note the exquisitely perfect placement of what sounds like a toaster “ding!”), but is still about fading away, falling apart. The way the songs seem to drive a narrative of anthropocenic collapse built on science fiction film scores, the combination of orchestra and techno-pop, absolutely draws on Sundfør’s experience collaborating with m83 for the Oblivion soundtrack, which itself combined Anthony Gonzalez’s love for the adult-scripted teen dramas of his own 80’s adolescence. In Ten Love Songs, Sundfør takes what she learned from this collaboration and scores not a movie but a life experience of living through ecological collapse and all of the heartbreak and desire that erupts in a time when everything seems so close to the knife’s edge.
I am reminded of another Scandinavian dance album that was extremely danceable yet harbored within it a sense of foreboding. The Visitors, ABBA’s eighth studio album, was considered their venture into more mature and complex music. The two couples who comprised the band had divorced the year before it was released, and the entire atmosphere of the album is paranoid, gloomy, and tense. The cover shows the four musicians, on opposite sides of a dark room, ignoring each other. Each song is melancholy and strange in its own way, unique for a pop ensemble like Abba. One song in particular showcases their ability to use an archetype of narrative tragedy and prophesy to tell the story of regret. Cassandra is sung from the perspective of those who didn’t heed the woman cursed by Zeus to foretell the future but never be believed.
I have always considered myself a pretty big Abba fan, something my high school choir instructor thought was riotously funny. I was born in the 80’s and nobody in my family liked disco, so I seemed like something of an anachronism. But pop music, especially synth-oriented pop, has always felt like a brain massage to me. It could get my inner motor moving when I felt utterly collapsed in resignation to the scary chaos of my early life. But I only discovered the song Cassandra in 2017, while giving The Visitors a full listen. It felt like I had never heard the song before, though, as a fan I must have. But something about 2015 made the song stand out more. It starts with piano, soft tambourine, and the ambient sound of a harbor. It has a coastal Mediterranean vibe, as some Abba songs do, foreshadowing Cassandra’s removal from her home city, an event she foretold but could not get anyone to believe. It’s a farewell song of regret, echoing the regret the members of Abba felt about their own breakups.
We feel so full of promise at the dawn of a new relationship. Only after the split can we look back and say we saw the fissures in the bond. The signs were there. Why did we ignore them? This happens on an individual level but the Cassandra paradox is an archetype that climate scientists and journalists are very familiar with. This particular Abba song, and the Visitors album overall, uses this archetype to tell the story of a breakup in retrospect. With climate change, the warnings have been there, even before science discovered the rising carbon in the atmosphere. Indigenous peoples have been warning of ecological collapse since colonization began. Because of white supremacy and an unwavering belief in “progress,” perpetual economic and technological development and growth, warnings from any source but especially marginalized sources have been noise to those who benefit from that perpetual growth model and from white supremacy itself. Is there a way to undo the Cassandra curse and render warnings signal BEFORE some major event turns us all into the chorus from Abba’s song, singing “some of us wanted- but none of us could– listen to words of warning?” Composer Pauline Oliveros called listening a radical act. It is especially so when we listen actively to the sounds and signals of those we would otherwise overlook.
When I look back at my life in the time that Sundfør’s Ten Love Songs and m83’s movie music seems nostalgic for, the late 1980’s in New Jersey, I was a child with deeply dissociative and escapist tendencies, which helped me survive unresolved grief, loss, and chaos. I recognize my love for Abba’s hypnotic synth music as a surrendering to the precise and driving rhythm of an all-encompassing sound experience. I also see how my early life prepared me to be sensitized to the story climate science was telling when I finally discovered it in 2008. I had already grown up with Save the Whales assemblies and poster-making contests, with a heavy emphasis on cutting six-pack rings so that sea life would not be strangled to death. I knew what it was like to see something terrible happening all around you and to feel powerless to stop it, because of the way my parents seemed incapable of and unsupported in their acting out their own traumatic dysregulation. Wounds, unable to heal, sucking other people into the abyss. I escaped through reading science fiction, listening to music like Abba and Aphex Twin loud enough to rattle my bones. I wanted to overwhelm my own dysregulated nervous system. I dreamed of solitude on other planets, sweeping grey vistas, being the protagonist of my own story where nothing ever hurt because ice ran through my veins and the fjords around me. My home planet was dying, and nobody could hear those of us screaming into the wind about it.
Ten Love Songs woke up that lost cosmic child who had banished herself to another solar system. Songs of decadence, songs of endings, songs of loss. Though that album was not overtly about climate change, Sundfør did talk about ecological collapse in interviews for her radically different follow-up album Music For People In Trouble. After the success of Ten Love Songs, Sundfør chose to travel to places that she said “might not be around much longer” in order to chronicle the loss of the biosphere for her new album. It is more expressly and urgently about the current global political moment, but the seeds for those themes were present and in my opinion much more potent in the poppier album. But maybe that’s the escapist in me.
The old forms that brought us to this point are in need of end-of-life care. Capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchal theocratic nationalism, neoliberalism, they all need death doulas. Escapism makes sense in response to traumatic stimulus, and for many of us it may have helped us survive difficult circumstances. But if we are to face what it means to be alive on this planet at this moment, we might be here to be present to and help facilitate and ease the process of putting these systems to rest. And maybe this work is not at odds with a dance party. The ability to be visionary about shared alternatives to these dying systems is not inherently escapist, when we are willing to take the steps together to live into those new stories. What would happen if cursed Cassandras, instead of pleading with existing power structures to heed warnings that sound like noise to them, turned to each other to restore the civic body through listening, through bearing witness to each others unacknowledged and thwarted grief over losses unacknowledged by those same systems of coercive power?
Engaged bewilderment means my version of hope, informed by Rebecca Solnit’s work on the topic, comes from the acceptance that things will happen that I could never have imagined possible. Climate change is happening and there are certain scientific certainties built into that trajectory. Some of it is written in the stars. But as with any dynamic system change, we do not know exactly how it will all shake out. These unknowns can be sources of fear and despair, but there is also the possibility for agency, choice and experimentation. The trajectory of my individual life was always going to end in death. Does that make it a failure? Or does it render each choice and engagement of movement towards the unknown an ecstatic act? As the old forms collapse, no need to apologize to the oracles. At this point they are dancing, and hope you’ll join.