Publication Details

Maier, C. D. & Cross, J. L. (2014). A multimodal analysis of the environment beat in a music video. In E. Djonov & S. Zhao (Eds.), Critical Multimodal Studies of Popular Discourse (pp. 109-124). New York, United States: Routledge.


The global impact of demanding environmental concerns is visible in almost all contexts of contemporary communication and across geographical borders. An increasing range of multimodal texts surface continuously in various media in order to facilitate public understanding of irreversible environmental changes, to educate future generations in ecoliteracy, to promote green or disclose greenwashed corporate images and practices, or to entertain and facilitate appropriate actions as well as responses. Simultaneously, research in environmental communication tries to keep up with this rapid pace by examining environment-focused multimodal texts from the context of journalism (Doyle, 2011; Lester & Cottle, 2009), education (Maier, 2010; Reid, 2007), advertising (Corbett, 2006; Cox, 2010; Hansen & Machin, 2008; Maier 2011; Moschini, 2007), and popular culture (Brereton, 2004; Meister & Japp, 2002; Starosielski, 2011), to mention only a few relevant areas.

Although environment-focused music videos have also proliferated in the last decade, and despite their recognized impact upon younger generations, giving expression as they do to the rhythms and visual associations relevant to youth cultures, music videos that deal with the environmental theme have relatively rarely been the subject of research endeavours. The present chapter intends to draw attention to how the analysis of relevant multimodal texts, such as the music video Earth Song, can contribute to a better understanding of the ways by which communication about environmental issues takes place in the context of popular culture. Our analysis will primarily be focused on how the video takes a critical view of human interaction with the environment by questioning the wisdom of traditional national boundaries and notions of time as linear and irreversible.

Michael Jackson’s Earth Song is a call to save the planet from the destructive impact that has been wrought upon the earth by humanity and technology. It was recorded in 1995, but never released as a single in the United States, due to events related to perceptions of Michael Jackson’s private life. However, Earth Song won a Grammy nomination in 1997(Jurin, Roush, & Danter, 2010, p. 132), as well as recognition in the form of the Genesis Award in 1996. According to Grant (1998), it was Jackson’s intention to create a lyrical and also melodically simple song, so the whole world, including non-English-speaking audiences, could sing along.

Earth Song has a specific synchronization of semiotic modes, orchestrated along four narrative strands and filmed in four different geographic locations across the globe, but presumably occurring at the same time. Each of these strands presents images of deforestation, animal cruelty, pollution, and war, with their disastrous consequences for humanity and Earth. These visual stories, based on shots taken from documentary archives and documentary-like footage filmed in Warwick, New York, the Amazon Rain Forest, Croatia, and Tanzania, are brought together and synchronized with an equally alarming musical accompaniment, insistent lyrics, an iconic presenter, and carefully edited shots of similar actions and gestures performed by the participants. The regular solo appearances of Michael Jackson as the voice of the world are staged against a backdrop of burning forests around New York. The overall spectacular effect is largely achieved through the interplay between its regular musical structure and the chorus-like chant “What about us?” which is coordinated with footage from the four disparate locations of devastation. Earth Song has earned its recognition as a “green anthem” because the broader environmental discourse that underlies it can be found not in the four individual “activity schemas” (Machin, 2010, p. 94), but at the level of the whole video, which reveals Michael Jackson’s critical approach to environmental issues.

This chapter illustrates a few of the ways in which this video’s discourse constructs space and time through the interplay of several semiotic modes. Our focus on space and time is motivated by the fact that we consider these to be fundamental coordinates of many environmental discourses. As will be shown below, in this particular video, the multimodal representation of space and time carries the critical green message in multiple ways.



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