It was 80 degrees here in Chicago the other day, Friday, October 20th. One the same day in 1988, the year “(Nothing But) Flowers” by The Talking Heads was released, it was 50 degrees. Whether you believe in global climate change or not, that is a difference of 30 degrees in 30 years.
The Talking Heads knew something was going wrong then, and “(Nothing But) Flowers” is their brilliant condemnation of a system that did not care, a population who could not be engaged, and what might happen as a result of our indifference.
The song begins setting the scene of a beautiful Garden of Eden. Waterfalls. Birds. And then, a reminder.
“From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers”
The song goes on to describe the civilization we know and rely on as being gone. Cars are gone. Factories are gone. Shopping malls are gone. We eat what we can catch. For however often we dream of a world stripped away of the technology, machinery and complications of our current lives, this song reminds us that the alternative may not be so attractive.
“We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
We got it, we got it.
There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers
You’ve got it, you’ve got it.
If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
You’ve got it, you’ve got it.”
Certainly the only way we our world can find itself in such a situation is if we allow it to happen. If we allow carbon fuel emissions to go unchecked. If we allow regulations and policies to get stripped away. If we allow corporate and political greed to take priority over environmental safety.
We like our cars. We like our microwave ovens and convenience stores. We like our chocolate chip cookies.
“The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we’d start over
But I guess I was wrong.”
We must find a balance. We must find a way to embrace and protect a world of trees, nature and animals while understanding our love of, and dependence on industry and commerce.
“I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
You got it, you got it.
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it.
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it.”
There is no resolution, only an acknowledgement that we want everything, we want it our way, and we want it now. David Byrne, key songwriter and lead singer for The Talking Heads, is a staunch environmentalist. He supports environmental causes, and is a vocal and visible advocate for bicycle riding in New York City. The only conclusion he can offer is total submission.
The song “(Nothing But) Flowers” cannot be fully appreciated without also appreciating its accompanying music video, arguably one of the finest music videos ever produced.
As the band performs the song amidst informative and illustrative typography and lighting, we learn how many acres of rain forest are cleared every day, how many Americans own handguns, how many pounds of hazardous waste are produced per capita by Americans. This is where we are. This is the moment when things start to go bad.
Only slightly less brilliant is the video of a TEDTalk performance of the song recorded in 2010 featuring David Byrne, Thomas Dolby and the Ethel String Quartet. A beautiful arrangement that highlights the songs haunting beauty.
And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.