by carl wilson

They Aren't the World

Today's Overtones column, about pop stars' roles in charity and especially the "charity single" and especially tsunami relief, was especially difficult to find on The Globe and Mail's website this morning. Wonder if someone was offended?

I hope you won't be - no slagging of the public's generosity was intended (it's obviously great that the CBC's telethon on Thursday raised $4-million-plus), just a reconsideration of how we're led and by whom in our attention to global crises.

One point I didn't manage to work in is that it's gratifying when these benefits include some kind of nod to the culture of the people you're trying to help out. Someone remembered Ravi Shankar opening the original rock-star benefit show, the Concert for Bangladesh, in an account of last week's big benefit in Halifax which was opened by Indian musicians Aditya Verma and Subir Dev. In Toronto, today there is gamelan music for the cause at the Indonesian embassy, Qawaali musicians Shahid Ali Khan and Ravi Naimpally play the Gladstone on Jan 21, and Small World Music is organizing an Indian Ocean benefit on Jan 27 at the Lula Lounge with Autorickshaw and Tasa. As the Iraq war reminded us so starkly, every war, plague or natural disaster is also a cultural disaster, yet also breeds new culture. (See the Zoilus concert calendar for details on those shows.)

I also recommend my friend Doug Saunders' column in the Globe today for a case study in the ways in which Western "help" (in this case, food aid) can sometimes be no help at all. (Unfortunately you'd have to be a Globe online subscriber to read it.) [...]

On comes the charidee, pop goes the piety

The Globe & Mail
Saturday, January 15, 2005

The charity single is a benighted pop-music genre that cannot really descend into self-parody because self-parody is where it started. But with every passing year, the form -- which the Brits (whose consolation prize for a lost empire has been a national instinct for sarcasm) call "charidee" -- becomes more of a travesty.

As if the suffering inflicted by one of the most severe natural disasters of the age were not enough, the world is now threatened with the recording of a tsunami-victims benefit single by an ensemble that includes Boy George, Sir Cliff Richard, two of the surviving Bee Gees, pop-jazz star Jamie Cullum and Olivia Newton-John. The song is by ex-BBC radio DJ Mike Read, whose other current project is a stage musical about the Village People, but whose sense of camp remains insufficient to grasp why recording a song called Grief Never Grows Old, and with a cast whose achievements mostly date to the early 1980s, may be ill-advised.

It seems churlish to look askance at the outpouring of celebrity compassion occasioned by the tsunami. Rock band Linkin Park kick-started its own charity, Music for Relief, with a donation of $100,000 (U.S.). Musicians have also led fundraising efforts such as the Canada for Asia charity broadcast on the CBC this past week (featuring the likes of the Tragically Hip, Rush, Blue Rodeo and Air Canada's own angel of mercy, Celine Dion); the Concert for Tsunami Relief starring Sarah McLachlan and Avril Lavigne in Vancouver, on the CTV network on Jan. 29; and in the United States, today's Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope on NBC, with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Mary J. Blige, Eric Clapton and dozens of other boldface names.

Clapton is also appearing at next week's mammoth Millennium Stadium benefit concert in Wales, and may contribute his song Tears in Heaven for a U.S. charity single being organized by American Idol judge Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne.

On a more humble scale, Toronto DJs have been holding what seem almost like daily fundraising dance parties. The indie favourites Broken Social Scene have sold out tickets for a benefit show. All sides of the Halifax music scene came together in a concert that raised $80,000 earlier this week. And other cities each have their tales to tell. It's all part of the massive public response that boosts one's general view of humanity.

But it's also marked by humanity's flaws, such as our collective inability to pay sustained attention to more than one issue. The disaster-relief effort creates a misleading sense of satisfaction when you consider our failure to address less sudden global crises, such as the AIDS pandemic killing millions in the developing world, and the thousands of people who die daily of preventable starvation and disease -- not to mention the genocidal emergency in Sudan that the tsunami has swept off the front pages, or the unnatural disaster of Iraq. Tsunami relief has proven an attractive cause because it seems free of human agency and unattended by political controversy.

Most pop stars are bandwagon-jumpers by nature. They make their living on trends. It's tough to stave off cynicism when the same celebrities now lending their manicured hands to tsunami relief were, 30 seconds ago, adorning their wrists with yellow plastic "stay strong" bracelets or red "Kabbalah threads" or whatever colour of ribbon is in vogue at awards season.

This attraction to feel-good gestures infects the music itself as well. Charidee anthems are usually written in Hallmark-card style, full of homilies and general exhortations to "care." They are protest songs in which all friction and specificity is supplanted by kitsch, focusing on the audience's own emotions rather than any broader responsibility.

The usual defence is that "it's better than nothing," but after 20 years of charity songs -- including some of the best-selling singles ever -- it's high time to question the model. At best, they call attention to neglected issues, but that doesn't apply to the tsunami crisis. With the costs of recording, manufacture and promotion, they are an extremely inefficient way to collect and disburse funds.

And you can't help resenting it when rich celebrities ask for more of an average fan's money for a whiny new song rather than, say, donating royalties from their own hits -- which at least are likely to traffic in pop's strong suits, sensuality and outrageousness, rather than strain to achieve pious earnestness, which pop music does so badly.

No wonder there are websites such as, which urges viewers to buy multiple copies of the latest charity single and then send in pictures of themselves crushing, burning or pan-frying it.

I'm reminded of the Conan O'Brien talk-show sketch about "Famous Helping People" (featuring Sting) recording a benefit song first and figuring out the cause later. Or The Simpsons episode in which Krusty the Clown (and Sting) sang We're Sending Our Love Down the Well to aid a child supposedly stuck in a Springfield well, rather than going down and rescuing him. (It was actually one of Bart's pranks.)

There was a real-life echo of that satire in last month's Sudan-benefit remake of the British Band Aid single Do They Know It's Christmas?, which used the lyrics of the original 1985 famine-relief song unchanged. As a result, besides the general cultural chauvinism of its titular question, this "nostalgia charity project," as Mark Thomas called it in The New Statesman, suggested that hunger in Darfur is being caused by drought rather than the murderous raids of government-sponsored militias, and that the victims mostly needed food, not the intervention the world still hasn't mustered the will to make. One activist compared it to telling people in a burning building not to worry because snacks are on the way.

Even the original single (and the copycat American We Are the World and Canadian Tears Are Not Enough) was criticized for blaming the climate for the Ethiopian famine, rather than the country's postcolonial political situation and the structural flaws of the global economy.

Yet there was an upside: When one participant, U2's Bono, found out that African nations were giving the West just as much money in debt repayment every week as the Live Aid concert raised in total, he dug deeper. Over the next 15 years, Bono educated himself and became a serious lobbyist for the Jubilee 2000 debt-forgiveness campaign, which has done more for Africa than any charidee concert or single.

People jeer at him for it, but Bono has the guts and imagination to deploy his celebrity to pressure elected politicians, including Prime Minister Paul Martin, to demand that they take on real leadership instead of leaving it to pop singers. Live Aid founder Bob Geldof has been doing the same.

Debt and other macro-economic (and environmental) issues are similarly relevant to Southeast Asia's current plight. People may get nervous when charity is politicized. But the know-nothing populism of the typical charidee effort risks exacerbating global problems. It's a phony comfort we may have to sacrifice if anything is to change, and it could bring at least one other benefit for humanity -- less music that sucks.


Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, January 15 at 12:32 PM | Linking Posts




Zoilus by Carl Wilson