The Art of Listening: Live Aid

On 25 years of charity pop music.

The recent Hollywood comedy caper Get Him to the Greek stars Russell Brand as Aldous Snow, a preening rock star who records a song entitled "African Child". Professing concern for a war in "Darfur or Zimbabwe or Rwanda, one of 'em", Snow comments: "I'm not saying I'm an African White Space Christ . . . that's for other people to say."

The sentiment should be foremost in our minds as we mark 25 years since the spirit of Aldous Snow was first visited upon us. On 13 July 1985, the golden calves of western pop - which then included U2, Queen and David Bowie - were herded into stadiums in London and New York to perform concerts that, ostensibly, would raise money to alleviate a famine in Ethiopia.

The concerts certainly generated a large amount of cash - around £150m, at the final count - but the sum was less significant than the message it sent to the estimated two billion people who watched or listened to the live broadcasts. Live Aid was a landmark event for the new economic orthodoxy championed by the governments of the host countries, then led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

The process that led to the concerts was set in train by the refusal of Britain and the US - at the time, the world's leading aid donors - to give state funds to Ethiopia. Instead, private aid agencies joined forces with the music industry to create a spectacle that would draw in money by appealing directly to the consciences (and wallets) of its viewers. Despite the protestations of its organisers that Live Aid transcended politics - "Just give us your fockin' money," in the apocryphal words of Bob Geldof - its effects were explicitly political.

In the short term, as Linda Polman explains in her new book, War Games: the Story of Aid and War in Modern Times (Viking), the no-strings-attached way in which the money was raised and distributed enabled Ethiopia's oppressive Derg regime to manipulate food shortages further in order to extend its control over the country's rebellious northern provinces. In fact, to generate the necessary feel-good factor in the months before Live Aid that would allow audiences to donate with a clear conscience, it was necessary for the media to ignore the political causes of the famine altogether. As the BBC's Michael Buerk later said, journalists reporting from the region actively wanted to avoid conveying the impression of "yet another stupid African war".

In the longer term, Live Aid promoted the idea that capitalism is the solution to - and certainly not the cause of - the world's problems. Correspondingly, the pop star has emerged as a kind of supreme being, one with the power to direct consumers' behaviour in one way or another. Nobody has occupied this role more closely than U2's singer, Bono. According to Polman, Bono's ongoing crusade has been nicknamed "the white band's burden" in international aid circles - after the 1899 poem by that noted philanthropist, Rudyard Kipling, who urged his readers to "Take up the White Man's burden", to "serve your captives' need" and to tend to these "new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child".

Inside the pantheon of pop, however, the "half-devil and half-child" is not some far-off colonial subject - it is you, the listener. This past week, that Lady Gaga is the first living person to attract more than ten million fans on Facebook made headline news on the BBC website. Even our political leaders are in awe: in 1997, Tony Blair asked the stars of Britpop to endorse New Labour, while David Cameron picked Andy Coulson, a veteran celebrity journalist, as his press secretary (although, admittedly, the Tories could only muster a mediocre seal of approval from Take That's Gary Barlow during their election campaign).

In 2006, Bono launched a "global brand", Product Red, which would send a share of its profits to the fight against Aids in Africa. Taking free-market fundamentalism a step further, he dispensed with the happy-clappy feel of previous charity campaigns: "Philanthropy is like hippie music, holding hands," he told the world's media. "This should feel like hard commerce." And so it does. Thanks very much, African White Space Christ!

You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Cute or creepy? How romcoms romanticise stalker-like and controlling behaviour

I present to you: a history of Hollywood romance, unromanticised.

This week, a new study was published with findings that suggest romcoms can encourage women to be more tolerant of stalker-like behaviour. I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You, a report Julia R Lippman, a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan specialising in gender and media, studied women’s responses to “stalking myths” after watching a series of films of different genres.

Women who watched There’s Something About Mary and Management were more likely to be accepting aggressive romantic pursuit than those who watched films featuring “a scary depiction of persistent pursuit” like Sleeping With the Enemy and Enough – or benign nature documentaries such as March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

Are we really that surprised? The male-dominated film industry has a long tradition of neutralising and romanticising controlling or harassing behaviour from men, from its beginnings to today. I present to you: a history of Hollywood romance, unromanticised.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Often credited with the birth of the romcom, the story is as follows: a newspaper reporter blackmails a celebrity on the run from her family into speaking to him for a story, threatening to turn her in to her father for reward money if she doesn’t comply with his wishes. After dangling this threat over her head over days, he hunts her down on her wedding day, and accepts slightly less than the agreed reward money from her father, arguing that he did what he did for love, not money. On hearing of this noble deed, our heroine swoons, cancels her wedding, and runs off with the reporter instead.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

A group of brothers kidnap six attractive women by causing a life-threatening avalanche that keeps them imprisoned all winter. The women play pranks on the men in revenge, and, in a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, everyone has an all-round jolly time. They pair off and are all married by summer.  

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Two men disguise themselves as women to trick a young woman into trusting them. One continues his attempts to seduce her by disguising himself as a billionaire and faking severe psychological traumas to gain her sympathy. They eventually sail into the sunset together.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

A man becomes enamoured by a pretty young woman, but is angered by her repeated attempts to marry richer men. He investigates her past relationships, without her permission. When she is abandoned by her fiancé, the man follows the pretty young woman to a New York library, insisting she confess her love for him, telling her, “I love you. You belong to me.” When she tells him “people don’t belong to people” he becomes enraged, lecturing and patronising her. They kiss in the rain.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Two men attempt to assert their control over a pretty young woman: one by promising her the career of her dreams if she promises to change her entire personality according to his strict preferences, one by stalking her, lurking constantly on the street where she lives. She almost marries one, and falls for the other.

The Graduate (1967)

A young man intentionally upsets his ex’s daughter by taking her on a date, where he is horrible to her, and forces her to go to a strip club. He hides his affair with her mother from her, and, when she discovers it and rejects him, follows her across America, spends days on end harassing her, and ruins her wedding. They elope, via the world’s most awkward bus journey.

Back to the Future (1985)

A teenager goes back in time to aid his creepy, peeping Tom father achieve his dream of marrying the woman he watches undress from a tree outside her house.

Say Anything (1989)

A young man wins back the heart of his ex-girlfriend by turning up uninvited at her family’s home and intentionally disturbing them all by holding a boombox aloft, humiliating her by blasting out the song she lost her virginity to.

Pretty Woman (1990)

A man manipulates a sex worker to overhaul her entire personality in order to conform to his idea of womanhood.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

An outcast becomes obsessed with a popular young woman after staring at her childhood pictures in her family home, watches her from a distance, carves an enormous, angelic statue of her, then murders her boyfriend. They kiss, feet from the boyfriend’s lifeless corpse.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

A man who knows a young woman is not attracted to him kidnaps her father as a way to lure her into his home. He imprisons her and uses his legion of servants and magical home to manipulate her into falling for her captor, all so he can get a sexy makeover. In a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, she falls for him.

Something About Mary (1998)

Thirteen years after his advances were first rejected, a man travels all the way from Rhode Island to Florida and pays a private investigator to stalk his childhood crush. He lies to her and everyone who knows her in order to win her affections. When she becomes aware of his deceit, she shrugs it off, as everyone else she knows has been stalking her, too. His excuse? “I did it because I never stopped thinking about you. And if I didn’t find you, I knew that my life would never ever be good again.”

American Beauty (1999)

A young man follows an attractive young woman to her house and videos her getting undressed. She gives in to his advances.

High Fidelity (2000)

A man tracks down every one of his ex-girlfriends to harass them over why they left him. He stalks his most recent ex’s boyfriend, standing outside his house in the pouring rain. She goes back to him.

50 First Dates (2004)

A man discovers an attractive woman’s amnesia leaves her vulnerable, so spends every day trying to manipulate her condition to his advantage. After studying her every move, he engineers “chance meetings”, essentially kidnapping her without her consent by the film’s end.

The Notebook (2004)

A woman falls for a man after he writes several hundred letters to her without receiving any replies, stalks her hometown, and restores an entire house based on the fact they had sex there once.

Love Actually (2004)

A man of enormous privilege and power falls for his secretary, comments on her physical appearance to colleagues, has her fired, turns up on her family doorstep on Christmas Eve, and bundles her into his car. She kisses him.

Also, a sullen young man resents his best friend’s wife for being good-looking, is horrible to her, films her obsessively on her wedding day, then arrives on her doorstep on Christmas eve, threateningly brandishing a picture of what he imagines her decaying corpse will one day look like. She kisses him.

Time Traveller’s Wife (2009)

A man uses his time-travelling powers to groom a pre-teen version of the adult woman he loves into falling for him.

Twilight (2008)

A centuries-old man disguised as a teenager infiltrates a school and becomes obsessed with a teenager, stalking her and watching her sleep, all the while making clear to her that he is “dangerous”. She gives in to his advances.

Also, a violent man pursues a teenage woman long after she has rejected him, usually in a state of semi-nudity.

Management (2008)

A man develops an obsession with a married woman when she checks into the motel where he works. She does not return his affections, so he follows her around the country: first to Maryland, then to Washington State, where she is engaged to a man whose baby she is carrying; then back to Maryland. She eventually gives in to his advances.

Crazy Stupid Love (2011)

A teenage boy stalks his female classmate, sneaking into her room at night to watch her sleep.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

A billionaire uses his money and power to hunt down a student journalist who interviewed him at her place of work. He kidnaps her when she is drunk, and blames her for drinking. He manipulates her with gifts and encourages her to sign away her independence. When she tries to leave him, he follows her 3,000 miles to her mother’s home. She gives in to his advances and he assaults her. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.