“Here Comes the Sun” Was an Anthem of Hope, Now It’s a Reminder of Climate Change
Every day, as news reports about climate change become more threatening, I grow more nostalgic for the places and objects of my childhood that feel increasingly imperiled.
Back in the 1990s, my high school friends and I, all hopped up on Nerds candy and bottles of Zima stolen from my dad’s refrigerator, would hold anti-Monsanto protests on the lawn of the Kansas State Capitol. Dressed in band t-shirts and cut-off jeans, we waved handmade signs we’d painted the night before: brightly colored skulls and crossbones, the bones an overlapping fork and knife, the skulls misshapen ears of corn with fangs. We were passionate, but not very effective. We had yet to learn the tactics of activism, like the ones wielded by Extinction Rebellion today: blocking doorways to politicians’ offices, risking arrest. Instead, we gathered outside the capitol on Saturday afternoons when no one, let alone our state congresspersons, was downtown. Sometimes we’d chant to the empty sidewalks—“Hell no, Monsanto must go!”—but that lasted only as long as our sugar high. When our blood sugar dropped, so did we, falling into the grass while still holding our signs upright, drowsy with booze and fading fury.
Our protests were sparked by an anger that gripped us like a hormone and burned with the intensity of a first love. The germs of our rage were passed on by our hippie, anti-war parents, who never forgot the role that the monster corporation played in developing Agent Orange. Monsanto was also a player behind DDT, a pesticide linked to cancer and infertility in humans, as well as hormonal and developmental problems in birds and other animals. What fueled us most were the words of our grandparents, all of them crop farmers. When the company introduced genetically engineered seeds in the mid-1990s—seeds that our grandparents told us were suspicious—we took up the anti-Monsanto cause as our own.
Today, my thoughts on GMOs are more complex. I don’t believe that all genetically engineered crops are dangerous, but I don’t regret those protests. Monsanto was never the sole source of our outrage. Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather told us that a hole had opened up in the ozone layer and that major environmental groups were split over the effectiveness of NAFTA. On our AOL message boards dedicated to environmental causes, we learned that grown-ups were doing terrible things to food, animals, each other, and the environment. But what I didn’t understand then, and would not realize until almost twenty years later, when I read the first part of the Intergovernmental l Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, was the extent of the damage. Since reading that report, nothing about my life—not my work, my relationships, the ways I eat or sleep or consume pop culture—has felt the same.
One of the more unexpected changes has to do with my relationship with the past. Every day, as news reports about climate change become more threatening, I grow more nostalgic for the places and objects of my childhood that feel increasingly imperiled: the Florida beaches I vacationed on as a kid, the fall leaves that will become less vibrant as the ancient cycle of the seasons grows haywire.
Since reading that report, nothing about my life—not my work, my relationships, the ways I eat or sleep or consume pop culture—has felt the same.
Most startling, though, is how the songs and movies and TV shows I loved back then, things we might expect to be safe from climate devastation, read differently today. Take those corny 1960s beach party movies I used to watch with my mother, the ones where Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello twisted and shouted on pristine sandy shores. They were pure sugary escapism: no real plot, just pretty faces and poppy dance tunes. Even before reading the IPCC report, those movies felt like relics from another era. Now they feel like fossils from another epoch.
In 1995, when I was a sophomore in high school, the Beatles had already achieved something like mythic status among my parents’ generation. The band’s music and image were everywhere. Posters hung in popular family restaurants, t-shirts hung on racks in department stores at the mall. Their songs played on every radio station in town, from oldies to Top 40. Even the country station spun Ringo’s version of “Act Naturally.”
The Beatles finally reached me when The Beatles Anthology, a collection of alternate takes and previously unrecorded songs that were accompanied by a TV docuseries, was released. Everyone I knew watched and listened to the Anthology, even those classmates obsessed with The Muffs, R.E.M., PJ Harvey, and Tupac, their identities deliberately crafted in opposition to their parents’ tastes. As “Xennials,” a mini-generation caught between the Millennials and Gen X, we were surprised and annoyed to discover that our generation hadn’t invented complex art; that our contradictory spirit of cynical optimism could be found in the music of our parents’ favorite band. We were also completely enthralled.
My mom and dad, meanwhile, found scheming delight in the fact that I wanted to know more about the Beatles. By then eight years divorced, my parents had fallen into a pattern—a banal mind game, really—in which each tried to get me to care about their respective interests most. The game had very little to do with nurturing my aesthetic sense and everything to do with one-upping each other. What they never seemed to figure out was that I wasn’t just a pawn in their game; I was the mastermind, because I could throw the outcome to either, depending on my mood or whether I wanted something from one of them.
But when it came to the Beatles, I was genuinely interested. I listened as both parents pitched me their favorite album: Abbey Road from mom, Rubber Soul from dad. I let my mother win on account of the cover: Paul’s bare feet—so wrong on a paved road—suggested those guys were weirder than I thought. She handed me the album with that wry know-it-all smile parents get when they believe they’re about to teach their kid a Truth about the world, and soon I thrilled to the menacing stomp of “Come Together,” the wistful romance of “Something,” and the bluesy punch of “Oh! Darling.” The medley on the second side of the album taught me that pop music could transcend orderly verse-chord structures and reach for the operatic. But the standout was “Here Comes the Sun.” Its unusual shifting time signature, from 4/4 to 2/4 to 3/8 to 5/8, was like an invitation to embrace change, to let go once and for all of the idea that my family would ever again be a coherent whole. But most significantly, the song’s repetitive line, “it’s all right,” was like an analeptic drug for my chronic anxiety.
Not that I had toomuch to worry about. I never went hungry; never felt endangered by my surroundings or by family members. Despite living apart, my parents still found opportunities to fight almost daily, using me, their ever-so-agreeable eldest, as a bargaining chip. I tried to hide the fighting from my younger sister, but she knew. She knew and kept stoically quiet about it all until one day, she left a note that said she’d had it with all of us and disappeared for two days. We found her at a friend’s house, and after a teary argument, she agreed to come home. I listened to “Here Comes the Sun” that night, comforted by George Harrison’s lyrics: “Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces.” I probably listened to it the next morning, too, to help pierce through my anxiety so I could get ready for class.
The song came with me when I left for college a couple years later, becoming a kind of anthem for my new group of friends. Despite their admiration for the hipper artists on our college radio station, like Beck and Neutral Milk Hotel, they would stop whatever they were doing when they heard the opening riff. We would all link arms and sing along with the passion of a generation convinced we were taking the best of what the Boomers had to offer—a healthy suspicion of corporations, this song—while leaving the rest in the past where it belonged. We were idealistic, optimistic, sometimes despairing about the world but just as often hopeful, and naïve as hell. We were convinced we’d always feel that way.
The 2014 People’s Climate March was organized to coincide with that year’s UN summit on climate change. At the time, it was the largest climate activist event in history, taking place in cities worldwide. By then a New Yorker and teaching at a university in New Jersey, I joined my students and other teachers for a local rally on campus. The energy felt distinctly different here than in Kansas: The marchers were louder, more brightly dressed, and already planning their tactics for future events. For as long as the march lasted, the despair I felt after reading the IPCC report felt less pressing, and real change, at the government and grassroots levels, felt possible.
Back home later that night, I laid down on my cheap couch and cued up my relaxation playlist to help ease the adrenaline from my body. As soon as “Here Comes the Sun” started, I felt myself start to unwind; the possibility that things might indeedbe “all right.”
But as the song played on, my contentment faded and that old familiar fury came crashing back in. Given all I’d heard and seen that day, the song’s repetition of “here comes the sun” felt less like a message of hope and more like a threat. As I listened, the refrain of “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” evoked images of relentless heat, a dark perversion of the song’s original intent. And rhythmically, the line echoed the chants I’d heard at the march. Even the song’s unusual time signature, which I used to marvel at, now seemed to reflect the uncertainty of the world around me—the uneven and disappointing speeds at which local and federal governments were responding to climate change, and the fits and starts of my own imperfect activism.
Given all I’d heard and seen that day, the song’s repetition of “here comes the sun” felt less like a message of hope and more like a threat.
Over the years I’d attended some marches, remembered to recycle, taken public transportation but what, exactly, had I changed? The world was no closer to stopping global warming—or hell, even alleviating it—than it had been when I picked up my first protest sign in high school. The number of people and governments and corporations that would have to work together to make actual, meaningful change suddenly felt overwhelming. Meanwhile, people and animals were already dying. The earth’s atmosphere contained roughly 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon, a level unprecedented in recorded history. Lying there, listening to George Harrison sing, I wasn’t “all right” by a long shot, and neither was the planet.
In 2019, the Beatles celebrated the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road by releasing a special anniversary edition of the album. According to Forbes magazine, music lovers still revere that record—and “Here Comes the Sun” is a particular favorite. The song is the Beatles’ most-streamed track overall, and it’s especially popular among my age group, which surprises me none. What does surprise me is the writer’s conclusion that the song is “simple.” Rhythmic complexities aside, its ability to transcend generations and musical tastes is remarkable. But on an overheated planet, the song strikes me as more complex than ever, with new emotional layers of fear and sadness skinned over its original ones of promise and peace.
I should have seen the change in my personal relationship with the song coming. After all, climate change is altering and has already altered every aspect of our lives. That’s why, in a 2015 essay, Margaret Atwood calls it “everything change.” Even here, in the relatively climate stable United States, we are experiencing the effects of planet-wide changes on our climate, and by extension, on our cultures, our social structures, and on the very ways in which we think and feel and remember.
The amount of carbon in our atmosphere has now grown to 415 ppm. If we don’t reduce emissions by at least 45 percent in ten years, the consequences will be catastrophic, especially in high-impact areas such as coastal villages and low-lying islands in the global south: Ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, droughts will lengthen, floods will worsen, and hurricanes will grow stronger. We are on the cusp of living in a world with hundreds of millions of climate refugees.
I still feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and the degree of tragedy that awaits the planet’s least privileged. I work through that feeling with an activism that’s still imperfect, by making life changes—such as using less plastic—that I know make very little difference on the larger scale. I vote Green; I broach difficult conversations over dinner with conservative family members. And I’m still not convinced that the things I do actually matter. In the face of such a large existential threat, nothing—not even a favorite song—feels entirely safe to hold onto.
But when I start sliding into despair, I try to dwell in the feelings of what it was like to be sixteen, pissed off and convinced I could change the world. How I could sit with so much fury and anxiety and still manage to hold up a sign, even with nobody around to see it. How I could maintain a capacity for belief, even when the world around me felt like it might never be all right.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about climate fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, Sierra, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, the Village Voice, the Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Literature, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was a recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship.