20 years later, seeking the buzz of Live Aid

July 01, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Twenty years ago, an Irish musician and activist named Bob Geldof organized a rock concert featuring Paul McCartney, a rising star named Madonna and an on-the-verge band, U2, to benefit the millions starving in Africa. Called Live Aid, the event raised $140 million, caused an international buzz and showed the world that rock musicians weren't quite as self-absorbed as they seemed.

Now, Geldof wants to do it again tomorrow, in 10 simultaneous concerts in Philadelphia and around the world.

Instead of money, though, he wants to raise consciousness enough to sway politicians who will meet next week at the G-8 Summit, a two-day gathering in Scotland of leaders of eight of the world's most powerful nations. And he's targeting a potential audience of billions through TV and the Internet. Still, in this age of post-American Idol cynicism and cause-of-the-moment concert tours, industry observers and fans wonder: Will it matter?

"Because charity concerts have become so commonplace, it's easy to dismiss something even as big as Live 8," says Dominick Miserandino, executive editor of thecelebritycafe.com, a 10-year-old online entertainment magazine. "There's no shock and awe about it like Live Aid had ... because we've done it before; we have seen it before."

Tomorrow, the message- and music-making begin at noon with free concerts in Philadelphia and nine other cities around the globe. Acts lined up for the Philly show, being held along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (no tickets required), include Jay-Z, Destiny's Child, Bon Jovi, Alicia Keys, Dave Matthews and Stevie Wonder.

The other concerts will be in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan (with Maryland's Good Charlotte performing), South Africa and Russia.

Philadelphia officials guess that hundreds of thousands to 1 million people could arrive for the show. On the Web and on TV (MTV will cover it live; ABC will air highlights at 8 p.m. on WMAR, Channel 2), the potential audience is immense. But that audience may be tough to truly reach.

"Fans are a little jaded now and more astute about what pop artists do," says Jerry Goolsby, music industry studies professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. "The cause behind [Live 8] is certainly admirable. But people have become more cynical about such things."

Technological advances, including the Internet and the time-jumping TiVo - represent a double-edged sword, promising enormous audiences while offering viewers the chance to tune out good-hearted speechifying, thereby missing the message. And there's even question of what that is.

"I've got to ask, `Where is the message? What's being celebrated? Is it simply an unabashed celebration of technology and celebrity?'" says Reebee Garofalo, professor of community media and technology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "Going after the policy-makers responsible for some of what's going on in Africa is a well-formed formulation on [Geldof's] part. But what he's doing to accomplish that isn't entirely clear."

But Jack Isquith, executive director for AOL music and radio, a sponsor of Live 8, argues that the concerts can be a force for positive change.

"There's just way more access to information now," he says. "It takes this kind of effort to cut through the clutter to get the messages across. When the audience sees the artists - Dave Matthews, who's from Africa; Coldplay; Alicia Keys - speak from the heart about the issues in Africa, it's going to cut through the cynicism, I think."

Careers boosted

There's no denying that exposure to such a huge audience could boost an act's profile. Twenty years ago, U2, on the precipice of international stardom, certainly benefited from its energetic performance at Live Aid. Madonna, a relative newcomer in 1985, exploded into a pop icon after her appearance.

Now, hugely popular shows like American Idol and VH1's Behind the Music have exposed the often ugly side of the pop industry. And since Live Aid, there's been a proliferation of high-profile concerts for a cause.

Live Aid's success would beget Farm Aid, an annual concert for America's struggling farmers, also begun in 1985. More recently, benefits sprang up after 9/11: the Concert for New York City, United We Stand, Country Freedom and others. There was also October's pre-election Vote for Change event in Washington.

Hype for Live Aid

In 1985, Live Aid offered its worldwide television audience two main stages, in London and Philadelphia, with satellite or taped broadcasts of bands in Holland, Japan, Austria, Yugoslavia, Norway, Germany, Australia and the Soviet Union.

It featured reunions of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Who, as well as a Mick Jagger-Tina Turner duet, Run-DMC, Carlos Santana and the high-flying act of Phil Collins, who, thanks to the now-defunct Concorde, flew between the London and Philly sets during the concert to complete the link.

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