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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit