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With Live 8, Rock Changes the Way It Calls for Change

Bob Geldof and U2's Bono redirect activism from the streets into the corridors of power.

July 03, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

"Are you ready to change history?" an invigorated Madonna asked the 200,000 fans gathered in London's Hyde Park on Saturday for one of the day's Live 8 concerts.

"Yes!" the crowd screamed back.

Whether or not the fans knew it in their excitement, the day had already changed rock history, though not perhaps in the way they imagined.

Most of the hundreds of musicians who joined in the worldwide concerts were simply extending the grand rock tradition of taking their message to the streets -- many of them, including the Who in London, with an inspiring energy.

But the lesson of the day was taught by rock singers Bono, of U2, and Bob Geldof, who through hard work and passion have redirected rock-star activism from the streets into the corridors of power.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
Live 8 Critic's Notebook -- In the Critic's Notebook by Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn that ran in Section A on July 3, the term "ultraconservative" was added by a copy editor to describe Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. Hilburn, before interviewing O'Reilly about the social activism of U2's Bono, had told the commentator he would not label him in a subjective way. The adjective that was inserted did not reflect that agreement or the critic's views.

In their crusades to combat poverty in Africa, the two Irishmen have met with and courted political and business leaders and have been as eager to appear on "Meet the Press" and "The O'Reilly Factor" as most musicians are to guest on MTV.

Rock 'n' roll has usually been at its best when it is on the attack. There's almost always an enemy at a music-related rally: ruthless government leaders, heartless international conglomerates, greedy developers.

But a hostile word was rarely detected in the hours I spent watching portions of concerts on the Internet.

The only enemy this time was poverty. Rather than attack anyone for not acting sooner, the performers chiefly pleaded for the leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations to take action this week at their meeting in Scotland to ease the suffering.

One of the day's most revealing displays of this change occurred early in the London concert, when Geldof did something that would have been unimaginable in the anti-establishment '60s, when businessmen were perceived by young rock fans as evil foes.

Describing Bill Gates as "a great businessman" and philanthropist, Geldof introduced the Microsoft co-founder, who drew cheers from the crowd. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other endeavors, helped create and has given more than $150 million to the Seattle-based Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

Gates praised Geldof and Live 8, and he urged the millions of fans watching on television or the Internet, a medium he helped make ubiquitous, to support the cause.

Bono, because he is a much bigger star and spends more time in America, has been more visible in the U.S. than Geldof in the musician-as-diplomat role.

In that area, the 45-year-old singer has moved far beyond what some of his greatest influences, including Bob Dylan and John Lennon, ever attempted.

Because of temperament or philosophy, Dylan saw his role chiefly as a songwriter. Lennon took activism a step further through demonstrations such as his "bed-in for peace" with Yoko Ono in 1969. But he, too, stopped short of total involvement.

In the '80s, Bruce Springsteen and Sting advanced the process by touring around the world with Amnesty International on behalf of human rights. They held news conferences and called on world leaders to act. Mostly, however, they relied on audiences to take action.

The problem, history has shown, is that rock audiences are hard to mobilize for more than a short while.

As a sample of one, I can report I was so moved by the tales of government atrocities outlined at the Amnesty International concerts that I joined the human rights organization with the full intention of signing up for its postcard campaigns. But I never got around to it, and eventually let my membership lapse.

So even in my most optimistic moments, I wonder how much good these gala rock benefits do -- even one as massive as the Live 8 concerts, which included shows in Philadelphia, Tokyo, Toronto and European cities.

The longer the concerts went, the more they looked like business as usual -- especially on television, where the MTV hosts spoke about how "awe-inspiring" everything was -- golly gosh! after golly gosh! for hours and, inexcusably, cut away from some of the most anticipated performances for more mindless chatter.

My guess is that Bono did more to persuade U.S. lawmakers to think seriously about debt relief and other African aid issues in a 15-minute appearance on "Meet the Press" last weekend than any performer or crowd shot did Saturday.

By going on "Meet the Press," where he followed an interview with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bono spoke directly to the opinion makers and government officials in this country who could help influence the U.S. in its G-8 stance, and he spoke with the eloquence of his best songs.

"The rest of the world are very suspicious about the G-8 countries, about the industrialized world," he said on the show. "They're not sure we have any values. They're not sure who we are. They meet us with our military, our trade, our movies, our commodities. They need to meet who we are on a different level. This [cause] will unite people."

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