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"'Happy' is a Revolutionary Song": Al Gore and Pharrell Talk Music, Optimism and Live Earth 2015

Photo: Masha Macpherson / AP

Al Gore and Pharrell Williams want us -- one billion of us -- to "take climate action now" by signing a petition that they will submit to the UN's Climate Change Conference in December. To that end, they've announced Live Earth Road to Paris, a day of linked concerts, taking place this fall, that will span all seven continents. Last month, the two environmentalists (Pharrell works with the sustainable textile brand Bionic Yarn) spoke with us about their sky-high goals.

When did you guys meet?

Al Gore: Well, that would be back in 2007. Pharrell was already a giant figure in music and entertainment and popular culture back then. Of course it's way more than that now, but he had already been part of the Neptunes and produced all these amazing acts. When I called him up to ask him to consider helping with the first Live Earth, I honestly called knowing a lot about him and knowing that we would hit it off -- but we more than hit it off. I don't want to overstate this, but we had a conversation that went on for hours and it really was unusually gratifying. I felt like I had made a friend in short order, and it's kind of embarrassing to say this with Pharrell on the line, but I'm really super impressed with his mind and art, and we just have very similar outlooks and both want to make the world a better place. 

Pharrell, what was it like for you getting that call?

Pharrell Williams: First of all, Al, that was super kind of you. Second of all, you know, it's Al Gore, man! This is a guy who at that time had recently released [An Inconvenient Truth] and it was brilliant because the pundits made just as much noise as the advocates did. I credit him and his movement with just getting everyone's attention, whether they agreed or they disagreed. That was the best thing it could have ever done, because it made everybody weigh in with what they thought about it. And they paid attention all because of this brilliant film that this man put out. So here it is, like, the Vice President, who has made one of the biggest pieces of informative content about our home, something that we take for granted so much so that people kind of forget that we do live on a planet. You know, if you're going to and fro every day, you forget that the planet is round; it's not just this flat place that goes on forever. It's going through a change, and this guy did that. So, I guess that was a very long answer just to say... when you hear everything he'd done, then you know what it meant for me to get that phone call. 

What kind of engagement are you aiming for with Live Earth 2015, other than getting people to sign the petition? How do you want people to take action -- by raising their own voices? Using their social networks? Donating money?

AG: You know, we're not trying to raise money; we're trying to raise awareness. We're trying to raise commitment. And what we're asking people to do is not only to watch and enjoy Live Earth, but to become a change agent and sign the petition -- and if you want to, take a selfie and document the fact that you are signing @LiveEarth and post the photos and encourage your friends to sign the Live Earth petition. Volunteer to host a Live Earth viewing party. Use the hashtag #ClimateChangeAgent. Just get involved and make our system of advocacy and self-government and representative democracy work better than it has on a lot of issues, because we've got to make it work on this: the whole future depends on it. We're going to win this, OK? I'm very optimistic, but the reason I am optimistic is because I have faith that people are going to respond.

How do you stay focused on positive change and results while still letting people know that there are major problems that we have to take on?

PW: I think our biggest problem as a species is that people are just oblivious to the real effects. If anything, it's hard to get people to weigh in on something that they just don't see or detect. The awareness is needed because we have to get this petition signed. Without it, we can't get it done. It's that simple. Without the petition, we just can't get anything done, and we have to enlighten the folks. And that's what this is all about.

You both have kids. How do you urge your own families to follow your example, and what advice would you give to other parents?

AG: My kids are older than Pharrell's 'cause I'm older than Pharrell [laughs]. I'm blessed to have kids that really do understand this and have been making their own contributions to moving the problem towards a solution. I've got grandkids now, and one of the things that motivates me the most is [the question], What are we going to leave to our kids and grandkids? We are wired to respond to short term threats, but when we confront a huge global challenge, we've got to communicate with one another and use our capacity to rise above our limitations and see how much is at stake in order to be good parents and, in my case, grandparents, so that we can say to our kids, "We care about you. We care enough about you that we're going to try to build a future that's worthy of you." 

PW: My little boy is six, and I talk to him about the planet all the time so that, from a very young age, he's cognizant of our home. We only have one home. If your house burns down, there is no moving -- at least not now; we're not going to be on Mars for 20, 30 years, right? So we've got to figure this out here. There's smoke in the atmosphere, pun intended, and we have to open the windows to the greenhouse gases. 

Do you think that every celebrity, every politician has an obligation to do something like what you guys are doing?

PW: You know, when I first started out in the music industry, I had a huge problem whenever people would come down on athletes about their tattoos or the way that they act in public or how they dress when they're not in uniform. But I've learned that they were right. When you are known for something and you represent something, you're representing it all the time. A marine is not just a marine in uniform; a marine is a marine in his heart, no matter what he has on, so he rises to the occasion. And celebrities -- well, not myself -- are beacons of light and they are meant to enlighten. And if you're not doing that, then you're just going for selfish reasons. So I do think it is every artist's responsibility. In order for this beehive to work, every worker bee has to get involved.

AG: I'm trying to figure out how to say something without sounding like I'm just praising Pharrell to the skies. When somebody is speaking the truth in a powerful way, you can feel it, you can sense it. If there's no artificiality, no fame chasing, no ulterior motive... to use a corny Star Trek metaphor, the truth has a tractor beam: when you plug into it, it pulls you along. And when you speak the truth and you feel it deeply, those who can hear you can feel it. Pharrell doesn't speak out a lot about a lot of stuff, but he gives a lot of thoughtful consideration to what he gets involved in. And then when he does speak, people know that he's for real.

How do you think music can galvanize people to take action beyond watching the concert or listening to the album?

PW: An important fact is so much easier to remember when it rhymes and it has a melody. That is the original job and purpose of a song. It is to communicate a message, make it easier to remember. So here we're just going back to primal roots as a species. 

AG: Yeah, science proves that people hear music in a way that is different from the way they absorb any other kind of message. Without getting geeky on you, they can measure the brain activity, no kidding. Music is powerful in any culture, in every nationality, all through any age of time. I don't pretend to understand it, but there is absolutely no question that people respond to music in a way that's very different and more powerful than they respond to practically any other kind of message.

What songs have inspired you to do what you're doing?

AG: I remember as a kid growing up in the south, when Bob Dylan wrote "Blowin' in The Wind" and then later on when Peter Paul and Mary made it accessible to an even larger audience, it was one of many songs in that era that blew me away. I don't remember songs having a powerful message that changed my whole relationship to other people the way those civil rights songs did. That was the beginning of my awareness of how powerful music could be in motivating people to make the world a better place. 

PW: This kid Sawyer [Fredericks] that won The Voice, he represents something very new and different. His music wasn't necessarily all over pop radio, but his songs and his covers that he sings were at the top of the iTunes charts. America's heartland voted for this kid, and he's up here singing songs by John Fogerty and Ray LaMontagne: very earthy and very folk. And where there is folk and Americana, there is consideration for "live and let live" and that incredible hippie spirit that we had in the '60s and '70s. I think that there is something happening in this country, and I can feel the day coming where there will be a lot of songs about what's actually going on. You're asking me about songs that have impressions on me -- I feel like they have yet to be heard. 

AG: By the way, the one song that has had the biggest impact on a global basis in the last few years really is "Happy." I mean, when the rulers in Iran feel like they have to sit up and take notice because the young people in Iran are singing and dancing to "Happy"; when the United Nations has a special day to celebrate happy [the International Day of Happiness], it's really something. It connects for me to what we are doing on Live Earth because it really is a joyful experience to have a mission that is so important and so consequential and so meaningful for our kids. Sometimes people look at these big challenges and they think, Woe is me, we've got these terrible threats facing us. No! It is a joyful privilege to be able to turn your labors to really making the world a better place. That may sound corny to you, but I've gone through a big change in the last few years about the attitude and spirit of what this work is about. I'm optimistic, I'm hopeful we are going to win this, and the work that we are inviting people to join in is really joyful work that has a joyful outcome. "Happy" is a revolutionary song, in a very surprising way. People think of social action and global change as a heavy burden to undertake... no, it's not that at all. It really is a happy and joyful task to be able to see a path toward making the world a better place.

Find more info on Live Earth Road to Paris here.

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