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!

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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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump