The music and the message of Live Earth

GORE IN 04!I can’t help feeling wholly conflicted about Al Gore’s decision to launch a series of global concerts on July 7 (7/7/07) to raise awareness of the threat of climate change. Dubbed “Live Earth” by the media, there will be concerts on seven continents and feature all sorts of popular musical acts, from the cool (The Police, Kanye West, Foo Fighters) to the interesting (a reunited Genesis?) to the meh-riffic (most everyone else). The model that Gore is emulating is obviously the Live Aid/Live 8 concerts organized by Bob Geldolf to draw attention to the struggles in Africa. Like with the latter, the goal is not to raise money, but to build awareness of the issue at hand.

These sorts of events tend to attract two rather annoying groups of people: the bleeding-heart supporters championing any attention that these concerts will bring to the issue, and stereotypically cynical opponents who rail against the celebrity co-opting of genuinely important topics.

For me, it’s never really quite so cut and dry. On the surface, one finds little to fault with the whole concept. For weeks and weeks, journalists will be connecting these concerts to the issue of climate change. It will allow Al Gore a larger platform for his ideas and his work. And few would argue that the concerts won’t draw more attention to what, really, is the defining political, environmental, social and economic issue of our time.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the use of fame and celebrity to promote causes such as this. In the annals of history, Live Aid/Live 8 are be remembered as “ALL OF THESE GREAT ARTISTS united in support of Africa,” not “all of these great artists united IN SUPPORT OF AFRICA” – and that’s a crucial distinction. People don’t remember Live Aid for what was accomplished; they remember U2’s blistering performance, or Phil Collins playing both shows, or the awfulness of the Led Zeppelin reunion (which I’ve never seen…I should watch it on YouTube and see if it’s as bad as legend recalls). Because the audience is watching the event FOR the music, it is the music which becomes ingrained in our collective understanding of the event, not the message.

In many ways, I think the goal of a Live Aid – fundraising – is much more realistic and attainable than achieving “awareness.” Never mind the fact that pretty much everyone worth a damn is “aware” of global warming already, and those who aren’t probably won’t be convinced by a coalition of predominantly left-leaning musicians. Awareness doesn’t mean jack shit unless it’s connected to action. With a fundraising event, the connection to action is easy to sell. With awareness as the goal, that connection is vague and difficult to make, especially in our 21st century culture of celebrity where the music will be the main reason that people are watching in the first place.

In many ways, one of the strengths of a show like this is also its greatest weakness: the sheer volume of artists. While strength in numbers is a welcome idea, the problem is that only a select few of these bands/artists have earned the credibility in the political sphere to be a POLITICAL attraction in addition to a musical one.

It’s one thing for Al Gore, a person well-established in the political sphere, to act as a spokesperson for a cause. People listen to Al Gore SPECIFICALLY to hear about climate change (and maybe a couple of ’08 questions for good measure); there’s little else clogging up the message. But very, VERY few musicians and artists have earned the credibilty in the political sphere to the point where what they have to say is as important as what they came to play. Bono is one of them, Geldolf is another, but the list begins to grow thin very quickly.

No matter what the good intentions or political backgrounds of the artists playing Gore’s shows, the vast majority of them will be treated by the media and by the public as musicians first, activists second; and that’s a serious barrier to the formation of any sort of awareness that leads to genuine, positive action. And so in spite of a plethora of noble, good intentions, the music will once again trump the message. So it goes.

(To learn more about the concerts, check out pretty much every media outlet ever.)

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