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Rock stars to the rescue

Al Gore’s Live Earth concert has to be the most counterintuitive idea in music history

AARON WHERRY July 2 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Rock stars to the rescue

Al Gore’s Live Earth concert has to be the most counterintuitive idea in music history

AARON WHERRY July 2 2007

Rock stars to the rescue

THE BACK PAGES

music

Al Gore’s Live Earth concert has to be the most counterintuitive idea in music history

AARON WHERRY

Roger Daltrey is not an environmentalist. He is a rock star. A 63-year-old rock star several decades removed from relevance whose music is now most famous for opening each episode of a popular TV crime drama—but a rock star all the same. And because of this, he is generally encouraged to speak publicly about the major social issues of the day. Asked recently, for instance, about the threat of global warming, he mused, “My answer is to burn all the f-king oil as quick as possible and then the politicians will have to find a solution.”

Again, to clarify, Roger Daltrey’s views are not generally endorsed by the wider environmental community. But he is, as noted, a rock star of some vintage. And therefore, on the subject of next month’s Live Earth—the multinational concert spectacular featuring the likes of Madonna, Kelly Clarkson and Bon Jovi and organized by former U.S. vice-president Al Gore in the interests of environmental sustainability—he is at least passably qualified to comment. “Bollocks to that! The last thing the planet needs is a rock concert,” he said in the same interview. “We have problems with global warming, but the questions and the answers are so huge I don’t know what a rock concert’s ever going to do to help.”

Daltrey is not a disbeliever in the healing powers of rock music. He and the Who were at the first Live Aid and 2005’s Live 8. They have performed at the Concert for New York City (9/11), the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (AIDS), the Bridge School Benefit (handicapped children), and the Concert for Kampuchea (Cambodian victims of Pol Pot). Daltrey is also closely involved with the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts in England. And yet, when asked by the U.K.’s Sun to comment on the latest attempt to solve a complicated social problem with pop music, Daltrey opted for a British slang reference to testicles. Whatever could inspire such cynicism?

To be fair, Al Gore’s Live Earth might not be the worst idea in music history. But it is indisputably the most counterintuitive. Pop music and politics have regularly mingled like 14-year-olds at a Grade 8 dance, but on July 7, the awkwardness should reach mind-blowing

proportions. A rock ’n’ roll celebration of personal responsibility featuring our least responsible heroes and organized by one of the great villains in rock history. All of it perhaps proving once again that, if you want to save the world, it’s best not to think too hard.

“I hope they’re a success,” Bob Geldof recently told a Dutch newspaper. “But why is [Gore] actually organizing them? To make us aware of the greenhouse effect? Everybody’s known about that problem for years. We are all f-king conscious of global warming ... I would only organize this if I could go on stage and announce concrete environmental measures from the American presidential candidates, Congress or major corporations. They haven’t got those guarantees. So it’s just an enormous pop concert.”

Geldof, rock’s foremost diplomat, pioneered the modern benefit concert with Live Aid in 1985, a two-concert rock show that raised millions for the victims of famine in Ethiopia. Those shows, featuring the likes of Queen, Elton John, U2 and Rick Springfield, set the standard by which all future attempts by singers of three-minute pop

songs to solve the world’s troubles would be measured. Dozens of similar efforts have followed, most of them apparently featuring Mr. Daltrey.

The primary quibble with the last 20 years of rock philanthropy is fairly obvious—namely that, despite a multitude of concerts, covering

almost every major concern imaginable, and millions upon millions raised to combat said problems, the world remains a messy place wrought with war, crime, disease, inequality and general depravity. This is not specifically the fault of, say, Dido (a performer at Live 8 in 2005). White Flag was a nice enough song, but it wasn’t going to save the world. And even Geldof, seemingly otherwise an idealist, appears to have realized his invention’s limitations.

Live Earth, to its credit, is not aiming for salvation of the human species. It is merely aiming to raise awareness for the need for said salvation. This is an important distinction. As Gore recently told Rolling Stone, “The Live Earth concerts on July 7 represent the starting gun.” In other words, he’s not putting a gun to your head. He’s merely firing it into the air in the hope you will start running.

Organizers are, likewise, working to set a good example. The nine concerts will be as environmentally friendly as mass gatherings of carbon-dioxide-spewing humans can be—employing renewable energy to power the LED lighting systems, encouraging recyclable concession packaging and so

forth. A press release on the Live Earth website also notes that staff at Live Earth headquarters are making sure to print on both sides of their recycled paper, turning off their computers at night and carpooling.

The only thing unaccounted for is the massive, soul-crushing irony of selling a movement of selflessness, restraint and forward thinking through man’s most selfish icons of wanton excess and short-sighted, life-shortening consumption. “The United Nations has been putting out scientific reports for 20 years now. But to take this message mainstream requires mainstream, popular media,”

argues Yusef Robb, a Live Earth spokesman. “And in this day and age, that still means music stars, movie stars, television, Internet, radio, et cetera, et cetera. Al Gore was giving his slide show to thousands of people and that had a profound effect. Anybody, if they really want to, can wake up in the morning, save up some money, travel around and go to one of Al Gore’s slide shows, but we really don’t have time to wait for people to come to this realization on their own. Live Earth is a consumer movement. Because it has to be.” This is the argument for necessary evil, a rationale that has certainly been used to justify worse. For that matter, if one believes in the mystical power of counterintuitiveness, the involvement of otherwise awful role models might actually become an asset. If, for instance, your favourite pop star is willing to exclusively seek out only biodegradable breast implants or drug dealers who drive Priuses, who are you not to bike to work every once in a while? This is the pop star as guilt trip

argument, one that has guided much of Bono’s recent career.

If you can get past all this, there’s only one more hurdle of disbelief to overcome: the involvement of a politician once infamous for demonizing rock ’n’ roll as a degrader of society’s morals and corrupter of young people. Here is where Al Gore’s making out with wife Tipper at the 2000 Democratic National Convention seems but the second-most-awkward moment of his professional career.

Twenty-two years ago, just two months after Geldof staged Live Aid, Al Gore, then a U.S. senator, was helping stage the unintentionally hilarious hearings into the lyrical content of mid-’80s pop music. Tipper had apparently caught one of their otherwise well-behaved children listening to Prince’s Darling Nikki. Outraged at Nikki’s rather obscene use of a magazine, Tipper and several other concerned political wives formed the Parents Music Resource Center and began campaigning for music industry standards. In short order, the lead singer of Twisted Sister was on Capitol Hill debating the merits of female masturbation with a future vice-president.

Gore went out of his way then to point out what a big fan he was of Frank Zappa (just as he quoted Bob Dylan to Rolling Stone to explain his current mission), but it was all rather embarrassing. Though also, apparently—despite rapper Ice T lyrically musing about how Al and Tipper’s sex life might have impacted the hearings—soon forgotten. Live Earth will feature both the Black Eyed Peas (responsible for My Humps, a popular ode to the female body’s lumps) and Snoop Dogg (responsible for promoting the economic benefits of prostitution). Irony aficionados will also appreciate the fact that one of the artists identified by the PMRC as being among the most obscene, Madonna, is set to play Live Earth’s show in London, England, and has recorded a Live Earth theme song. Helpfully titled Hey You, the track includes the exaltation, “Open your heart, it’s not so strange, you’ve got to change this time.” This is also sort of an argument for necessary evil.

“Live Earth isn’t about casting stones at people, whether famous or not, for what they’ve done in the past,” Robb says. “What we’re asking people to do is start making a change now.” In other words, ignore the past for the sake of the future. Somewhere a historian is stroking his chin ruefully, but this would seem to apply to everything about

Live Earth. And maybe this is bollocks, but then this is a movement that, as a basic premise, asks people to ignore their baser instincts. Don’t buy that 20,000 h.p. SUV so that one day your great-great-great-grandchildren might not be overcome by tidal waves and/or drought. Restrict yourself for the greater good.

This is counterintuitiveness as a guiding principle. And in that context it’s not hard to see how Live Earth might make sense. Of course, once you open your mind to counterintuitiveness, lots of things start to seem reasonable. The next thing you know you’re taking direction from a wrinkled-up old rock star and incinerating the world’s oil supply. Sure it seems like a completely insane idea. But is it really any more bonkers than the thought of Al Gore and Snoop Dogg coming together to promote carpooling and cornbased energy sources? M

One more hurdle of disbelief to overcome: the involvement of Al Gore, once infamous for demonizing rock