Hurricane relief telethons reflect a divided nation

Multiple efforts prove more isn't better, still several artists make moving contributions

Commentary

September 13, 2005|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

You had to feel for Brian Wilson when the MTV cameras abruptly switched from him Saturday as he was asking if it would be all right to do a second number for one of the weekend's hurricane relief telethons.

Still, someone at MTV had to say "no" at some point.

No offense to Wilson, but the telethon had already stretched from three hours to just over four to accommodate all the artists who wanted to participate - and that made the show feel bloated. Especially on the heels of 4 1/2 hours from two telethons Friday and a one-hour NBC fundraiser the weekend before.

If the nearly 50 artists on the MTV event alone hadn't been limited to one song each, the show might have been on longer than the Jerry Lewis telethon.

And we're not done yet.

PBS checks in with its own fundraiser featuring stars of jazz Saturday from New York's Lincoln Center (8 p.m.-11 p.m., MPT, Channels 22, 67) - 19 days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

One thing is clear from the two weekends of programming: We're a divided nation when it comes to telethons, too.

BET positioned itself over the weekend as the voice of African-American compassion. "There's been a lot of telethons," rap mogul Diddy said during the 3 1/2 -hour broadcast Friday, "but this is our telethon. These are our people."

In a bid to speak for country and rock fans, MTV, VH1 and CMT joined for the four-hour program Saturday. The target audience for the weekend's other telethon, the multi-network Shelter From the Storm ... was apparently mainstream America.

It was a case of more not being better.

By squeezing the best of the weekend's music into a single, two-hour program, we would have had a better chance to come together as a nation in the spirit of the chilling Sept. 11 telethon.

The divided energy of these Katrina telethons felt all the more misguided when we kept seeing many of the same faces popping up. Still, several artists made especially moving contributions over the weekend.

Among those that come first to mind from the MTV-VH1-CMT telethon: Trent Reznor's caressing version of "Hurt" and Melissa Etheridge's "Four Days" (a song about the flood victims that she wrote for the program). From Friday's Shelter: Paul Simon's exquisite rendition of "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" and the inspired U2/Mary J. Blige teaming on the Irish band's comforting "One."

But three artists defined the weekend:

Kanye West. Sorry if his criticism of President Bush on the NBC telethon Sept. 2 offended you, but West, who appeared on all three fundraisers, showed why the 28-year-old rapper-producer is at the creative center of popular music at the moment. His "Touch the Sky" on the MTV program was wonderfully uplifting, and, during Shelter, he customized his 2004 hit, "Jesus Walks," to express his heartache over the struggle of flood victims.

Alicia Keys. Here's a young singer-songwriter who is so respected she didn't just appear on three of the telethons, but she was given the honor of opening two (MTV and BET). Rather than stick to a single song or even genre, Keys gave us an R&B-tinged tune on one telethon, a gospel number on another and, finally, a pop standard ("You'll Never Walk Alone") Saturday.

Neil Young. This rock 'n' roll treasure's heartfelt rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" was, for many, the highlight of the Sept. 11 telethon, and he was just as moving this time around.

Looking like Johnny Cash as he stood at the microphone dressed all in black, Young came across as a symbol of all that is good and true in American music. It made sense for MTV to ask him to close the telethon.

His song was another showstopper: one of Fats Domino's biggest hits, "Walking to New Orleans."

Too bad only one of the telethon audiences got to see it.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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