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8 July 2010

The Art of Listening: Live Aid

On 25 years of charity pop music.

By Daniel Trilling

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.

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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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