Remember Live Earth? You could be forgiven if the answer is no. It’s been ten years since the global mega-concert was beamed across the world in a purported effort to save it. How it was supposed to do so was never made clear, and it only took a few years for it to quietly fade into memory.
Founded by media mogul Kevin Wall and inconvenient-truth teller Al Gore, Live Earth consisted of twelve roughly simultaneous concerts, staged on every continent, including Antarctica. The diverse lineup featured everyone from Snoop Dogg and M.I.A. to Garth Brooks and the Soweto Gospel Choir. If social change could come from star power alone, global warming would’ve stopped on July 7, 2007.
We weren’t so lucky. A decade later, the most powerful nation in the world has a blustering climate denier at its helm, and every season seems to top its average high temperature by a few degrees.
Of course, today most of the performers and viewers alike would admit that the concert was a spectacular failure. Yet the idea that a culture of awareness can magically save the world remains alive and well.
We can chalk up a fraction of Live Earth’s failure to its lack of vision. What exactly was it supposed to achieve? Was every person watching from home going to start driving hybrids and using energy efficient light bulbs? How could it address private corporations, which spew a thousand times more pollution into the atmosphere than consumers? Even Bob Geldof — always the first to defend anything modeled after his own Live Aid — publicly criticized Live Earth’s awareness-raising goals as hopelessly vague.
What ultimately did the brand in, however, was the real world, which was supposed to stand inert while Gore ran to its rescue. In November 2008, terror attacks struck Mumbai, and organizers canceled the concert scheduled for the next month. Protests greeted the 2010 “Run for Water,” which had bafflingly recruited Dow Chemical as a sponsor. As critics pointed out, the company is responsible for some of the worst environmental disasters in history, from the notorious Bhopal gas leak to more recent poisoning of groundwater in Michigan and Louisiana.
This is not to say that a concert cannot become a space of transformation. Geldof may have created the modern mega-benefit performance, but he arguably got the idea from a large festival that invoked a very different kind of power. In his 1986 book Beating Time: Race ‘n’ Riot ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, David Widgery mentions that, seven years before Live Aid, Geldof had been actively involved in Rock Against Racism. Widgery offers a brief but sharp criticism of Geldof’s follow-up project:
The political problem was not that Live Aid failed to over-throw imperialism, East and West (which it was never intended), but it . . . neglected its other declared intention, to really hammer the big powers’ refusal of effective aid [to Ethiopia]. Geldof was not “too egotistic,” rather he was too easily steered from confronting Thatcher to having off-the-record dinner with the royals, partly because it was too much of a one man band.
A lot changed between 1978 and 1985. These were neoliberalism’s early years, and the cultural logic of personal responsibility as absolute determinant was just starting to infect daily life and art. This narrative deliberately presented mass power as nothing more than a series of personal choices divorced from the structures of power and profit.
Today, this logic is ubiquitous, and thousands of smaller music festivals thrive on it. For example, Milwaukee’s 2012 Rock the Green festival was supposed to promote environmentalism, but its primary backer — Veolia EnvironmentalServices — had dumped 200,000 tons of Israeli trash on top of Palesti-nian villages.
No concert can substantively push back climate change, racism, poverty, or war — at least not on its own. What it can do, however, is situate itself in ideological opposition. This isn’t simply a matter of choosing the right theme or emphasis, but of understanding the areas where popular culture and popular politics overlap and recognizing that we cannot engage with music without dealing with questions of political economy.
Rock Against Racism shunned corporate funding, openly and enthu-siastically allied with protest movements like the Anti-Nazi League, carefully selected its acts, and demanded that artists and audience members put their bodies on the streets. These traits distinguished it from a dominant culture that sees change as coming only from personal consumer choices.
While today’s mega-benefit concert might have a little bit of this spirit still floating in its DNA, it dilutes the idea of “music that mobilizes” to the milquetoast “music for a cause.”
Climate change is not a cause. It is a totalizer, something that will determine whether humanity can survive long enough to compile an “extinct list.” It is a massive cliff, and a select few have a vested interest in pushing the rest of us off. A culture that sees working and oppressed people as collective participants can keep us from falling off the edge, but I highly doubt that Bono will have a role in it.