“How can you sing about love when the kids are all dying?” FINNEAS asked me last night. There are few forms of expression as intimate as music. While I’ve never met FINNEAS, when I heard his debut album that came out last night, he was right in my ear.
For those who don’t know, FINNEAS (stage name of Finneas O’Connell) is a multi-time Grammy winner, producer savant, and Billie Eilish’s brother. He’s kind of a big deal — one of the most in demand producers in the industry and the main collaborator of one of the biggest pop stars around. At the same time, he’s also just a 24 year-old, dealing with the state of the world, just like me.
FINNEAS and I are exactly the same age. We’re not quite millennials, not quite Gen Z, and we’ve grown up through the tumultuous turn of the century with regular school shootings, landmark elections, widespread social movements, technology changes like the rise and fall of the iPod, and of course, the climate crisis. While our lives are very different, FINNEAS and I share a lot of the same background, and thus a lot of the same questions.
So, while he may have meant it to be rhetorical, I took his question quite seriously. “How can you sing about love when the kids are all dying?”
This question is the start of the chorus to “The Kids Are All Dying,” the second track off his new album, and the only track to explicitly deal with the climate crisis. It’s sung over a “bang-bang” explosion of percussion that perfectly emphasizes the urgency and stake of our lives right now.
The song as a whole is all over the place — which makes it clear that FINNEAS is having a crisis about how to live given the state of the world (aren’t we all??). The verses jump between on point lines about guilt and carbon footprints and some more suspect lines like, “I tried saving the world, and then I got bored.” There is certainly an argument to be made (in fact FINNEAS seems to address it himself in the bridge) that as a privileged and famous celebrity, FINNEAS is not the one we should be listening to on these issues, and perhaps that is why some of the lines feel off.
However, FINNEAS is also a 24-year old just like me. And no matter how rich and famous he is, in some way, he is contending with a future that’s disappearing. And contend with it he does. All of the confusion, anger, and hurt that show up in the verses to convey his frenetic mind are crystallized in a clear, powerhouse chorus.
“How can you sing about love when the kids are all dying?
How can you sing about drugs? Politicians are lying.
How can you sing about sex when the school is on lockdown, lockdown?
Maybe we’re next.”
Well, good question, FINNEAS. I’d say that the key to surviving 2021 is having a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance. It simply is not healthy or sustainable to think about how the kids are all dying (though they are — here is a whole research paper on the climate crisis and its affects on child health) all of the time. Even in crisis, we are still people that need love, and we still want to listen to songs about it! At the same time, ignoring the climate crisis or pretending everything is just dandy is not an option. Our brains must often hold dire circumstances and beautiful moments side by side.
There are times, though, that we must banish the cognitive dissonance to let in the full weight of what is happening. Today was one of those days. This afternoon, the New York Times reported that “The Heart of President Biden’s Climate Agenda is Said to be Cut from the Bill Because Joe Manchin opposes it.” It was a staggering blow, and right now is not the time to sing about love, drugs, and sex. Right now is exactly the time to feel what a world without climate action will look like. Right now is exactly the time to buckle down on action with single-minded focus.
It’s time, because though things have only gotten worse, and the situation is dire, there’s still hope. Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the title of FINNEAS’s debut album. You might not have guessed it with song titles like “The Kids Are All Dying,” but the album is called Optimist. In an interview with NME, Finneas said optimism is “definitely something I have to work at… Maybe some people are really naturally optimistic, but to me, it’s a choice that you can make. The most pessimistic version of me works the least hard and is the least hopeful and helpful because I think things are going to fail. The version of me that I wish I always was is the optimistic, helpful, positive me, which is aspirational for me. There’s a lot of reason to be pessimistic in the world but you can still choose to be like, “We shouldn’t really give up on this.”‘”
So, let’s make that choice together. Our whole existence is clearly not something we should give up on. As Mary Heglar wrote, “Home is Always Worth It.” Let’s save the cognitive dissonance for another day — perhaps in a few weeks when we can celebrate the new Taylor Swift album and get outraged about the lack of action at COP 26 at the same time — and give your whole mind over to this question.
“Joe Manchin, how can you sink so low when the kids are all dying?”