by Luca Valpreda

Imagine buying the latest album of one your favourite singers, and then discovering, as you listen to the songs, that the musician you love is attacking you, you personally. What would you do? How would you react? The management of Monsanto, the multinational that describes itself as “a sustainable agriculture company”, have discovered that, in the text of a newly released track, Neil Young sings: «Family seeds they used to save were gifts from God, not Monsanto, Monsanto / Their own child grows ill near the poisoned crops / While they work on, they can’t find an easy way to stop, Monsanto, Monsanto».

During his long career, the Canadian songwriter, 70, has influenced generations of musicians and established a solid reputation as an irresistible maverick. He has given full voice to his political and social views since 1970, the year he wrote “Ohio”, a passionate condemnation of the then US President Richard Nixon, the government and American soldiers (the facts: on 4 May 1970, at Kent State University, a number of soldiers in a state of confusion “due to anti-gas masks” opened fire on a group of protesting students, killing four of them and seriously injuring another nine). In recent years, Young has shifted his sights. He has been an ardent opponent of more than a few multinationals, naming them and bluntly accusing them of destroying the planet, making profits without any thought for individuals and endangering the lives of citizens and workers.

In his 36th album released this summer, with the self-explanatory title “The Monsanto Years“, Neil Young also criticises Chevron, Walmart and Starbucks. This is not so much an invitation to take up arms as the cry of someone who feels they are not strong enough to combat the will of the powerful. Wondering how those concerned felt, the US magazine Billboard asked the spokespeople of the companies: “What do you think?”. Chevron decided to keep silent. Their PR Department probably advised them to let it go: “never argue with artistes and popular idols” is a suggestion heard hundreds of times whose (minimum) goal is not to stir up controversy. Is ignoring people who’re talking (badly) about you still a relevant approach today? Perhaps not. Walmart, attacked for exploiting its personnel, responded with a touch of irritation: “Everyone knows that we have raised the minimum wage for our employees to 9 dollars an hour”. Not exactly impressive. Starbucks takes avoiding tactics. “We do not have a position on OGM. We are a company with shops and products everywhere, so we prefer the situation to be resolved by the competent authorities”. Is this attitude acceptable in 2015? We don’t think so. How can a business giant like Starbucks not take a position on such an important issue? The days of “we do business and don’t worry about the rest” are long gone and social irresponsibility is no longer excusable. Monsanto’s stance has the merit of clarity: “Many of us at Monsanto are Neil Young fans. Unfortunately, his album does not reflect what we believe in and what we do to make agriculture truly sustainable. We realise there is misinformation about Monsanto and much of this is present in Young’s recent lyrics”.

Neil Young is entitled and has the authority to express his views in song. Those he criticises should do two things: listen to their critics and say something sensible (and verifiable) in response. Then one day perhaps they might be the recipients of a dedication from a grizzled but hyper-sprightly rebel like Young in softer, more hopeful verses such as “Comes a time when you settle down / Comes a light feelin’s liftin’”.