Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

What is the sound of social change? The Grammy Awards ask, but offer no answer

Apparently pop singers like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (here with his 2 Grammys) are influential. Photo backstage at the 54th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California, February 12, 2012.
Apparently pop singers like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (here with his 2 Grammys) are influential. Photo backstage at the 54th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California, February 12, 2012. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, the Recording Academy sponsored a talk about ways the entertainment business responds to social change. It was last Friday; I went to a panel called "The Sound of Social Change."

A press release said El Segundo-based Mattel, fast food giant Yum! Brands, Hyundai Motors, and the public relations firm Weber Shandwick were chosen to kick around energy use, water conservation, food waste and recycling concerns because they’re leaders in their fields. (Representatives of those businesses talked plenty about following consumers in the marketplace, too.)

I usually find these kind of events a colossal waste of time. Corporate sustainability types, given free rein, tend to prefer platitudes and staying on message to talking substantively about what they do and why they do it. But this one gave me food for thought. 

Tim Sexton, a founder of the green consulting group E2, seemed to feel he had the responsibility of connecting the panel's discussion to the Grammy event. Over the weekend, I reported that he said people have tended to follow music personalities, not corporations. "When young people were asked who they trusted most, first it was their family. Second it was their favorite musician," Sexton said.  

Sexton told an audience of clickety-clack publicist ladies, bloggers, and me, that he got that information from a Nature Conservancy survey. Which also indicated that technology and rapid urbanization disconnect kids everywhere from the environment.

Sexton suggested that maybe today's pop stars, like Lady Gaga or Skrillex, could help. "There’s an opportunity we’re missing not using our pop culture icons to help remind people of what’s at stake." 

I was thinking about this, this weekend, when Whitney Houston died. Up front, I want to say, I never ever ever thought of Whitney as a self-declared environment activist, nor did I know of any campaigns to pressure her to be one. But I think I did associate what semed to be her struggles with pressure on public figures (sure, yes, in part because of the classic 1992 film, The Bodyguard).

Another thing Tim Sexton said, in response to a question about a labor dispute at Waste Management, the event's sponsor, was that the Recording Academy wasn't there to talk about that. "The Recording Industry's mission is not to be a policeman in this regard. That's just not what they're here to do," was what he said exactly, in response to a question from labor organizer Carlos Cordon.

I saw lots of nodding heads. Sexton's right; the Recording Academy was there to talk about sustainability in a non-threatening way. But maybe it feels weird to me that as we're increasingly according corporations the rights of people, we're not saddling them with the responsibilities. So I also wonder: why do we put enormous pressure on individual people, like pop idols, to serve as positive examples for this or that, but not on corporations? Are we too shy of asking corporations to be responsible citizens? 

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