What do pop stars know about the world?
Pop and rock stars are nowadays as influential in government circles as they are among their teenage fans. Is this necessarily a good thing?
There has always been a little bit of politics – as Ben Elton might say – in pop and rock music.
Ever since a wild-haired Bob Dylan sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1963 – in which he warned senators and congressmen that “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging” – popular singers have ventured, with varying degrees of success, into the world of political protest and dissent.
Some 40 years later, the times really have a-changed. Politically inclined pop stars no longer strum their frustrations in catchy three-minute tunes; they have become global statesmen instead. They no longer only play political songs but have become real political players.
Take Live 8, the global gig being organised by former Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof and one-time Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, due to take place in London, Berlin, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Paris, Philadelphia and Rome on 2 July.
In the run-up to the concert pop stars have been everywhere, proffering their views on what the powerful G8 nations should do to tackle poverty and pestilence in Africa.
But what do pop stars really know about the world? And why should the views of these well-heeled singers of throwaway songs be taken more seriously than anybody else’s – which they are, everywhere from Whitehall to the White House?
In recent months, Geldof and Bono of U2 seem to have become the unofficial (and certainly unelected) spokesmen for Africa.
In an article in London’s Evening Standard earlier this month, headlined “Why Africa needs U2”, Bono declared: “I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.”
Since when do statesmen bow down to rock stars?
Connie Woodcock, Toronto Sun
World leaders seek an audience with Bono in the way they might once have sought an audience with the Pope. He has been photographed rubbing shoulders with President George W Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
And he gave a rabble-rousing speech at the Labour Party conference at the end of last year, in which he referred to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as the John and Paul (as in Lennon and McCartney) of global development.
It is sometimes easy to forget that Bono is only a rock star – a stadium-filling and million-selling rock star, granted, but a rock star nonetheless. And yet he chastises political leaders, including Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for their inaction on global poverty.
This has led one British newspaper columnist to argue: “It’s about time we instigated a prestigious award for the first world leader to tell Bono – the David Brent of pop – to get lost.”
Geldof has also become a jet-setting political spokesman for the poor and destitute.
He recently caused controversy in Canada (a G8 nation) when he told Prime Minister Paul Martin not to bother showing up at the G8 meeting in Edinburgh on 6 July unless he was prepared to increase Canada’s foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP.
Canadians weren’t best pleased with Geldof’s “snarling and snapping at big league politicians”, as one columnist described it.
“Since when do statesmen bow down to rock stars?”, asked Connie Woodcock of the Toronto Sun. “I’m sure Geldof means well, but where does this second-string musician get off telling Paul Martin he doesn’t like our foreign aid spending?”
Live 8 also features many pop artists not known for their philanthropic streak, political acumen, nor in many cases for having anything interesting at all to say.
There are no doubt good intentions behind Live 8, and nearly everyone can agree with the broad aim to “make poverty history”. But how did we get to a situation where individuals from the world of pop and rock – a line of work (if you can call it work) not previously taken very seriously – have become self-appointed politicians strutting the world stage?
Neal Lawson, chair of the left-leaning think tank Compass, says he is not 100% convinced that Live 8 will have a lasting political impact. But he reckons we should welcome the new kind of politics being fronted by the likes of Geldof and Bono.
“People like Geldof can bring some passion to events and galvanise people, and we shouldn’t write that off,” he says. “In our less deferential and more decentralised world, people are looking for political inspiration elsewhere, outside of parliamentary politics.
“And Geldof seems to offer something that our old steam-age politics cannot: he can mobilise people quickly and get them to feel passionate about an issue.”
Lawson says we shouldn’t be too worried if, as Live 8 cynics have claimed, some of the pop acts are taking part only to boost their record sales.
“Does it matter if they do it because they’ve got a record coming out or because they want to perform for millions of TV viewers? The important thing is that they are doing something, and in this time of political flux we should grab what we can.”
James Panton, a lecturer in politics at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University, disagrees. He thinks it is the “exhaustion of political vision” that has allowed “these petty celebrities with their banal and limited arguments to take centre stage”. “And that’s a bad thing,” he argues.
“Live 8 is about moralising rather than positing a genuine political alternative,” says Panton. “In place of an attempt to analyse and understand the world – all the better to change it – we have Geldof and others telling Africa: ‘We feel your pain’.”
As for the politicians queuing up to meet Geldof and Bono, Panton says, “It is a frightening indictment of the state of politics to see people like Gordon Brown kow-towing to people like Geldof.
“That, to me, looks like a sad expression of the professional politician’s own lack of ambition and vision, and their sense of being out of touch with the public. They hope that some of the rock star’s credibility will rub off on them.”
Neal Lawson remains more upbeat. “Live 8 isn’t perfect”, he says, “but how many millions has it got talking about poverty in the third world? That is a good start.” Autor: Brendan O’Neill