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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

That's some band aid

Live Earth's experiment in cultural interconnection is as big as a planet, small as a PC.

July 09, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

SYSTEM overload.

That's the only way to describe the pageantry of Live Earth. Al Gore and promoter Kevin Wall's continents-spanning music festival undoubtedly spiked awareness about environmentalist causes, but it paid off more directly as an experiment in cultural interconnection across time zones and in the floating realm of the Internet.

Nine concerts took place on seven continents, but the average Live Earth participant didn't make it down to a stadium. Her Saturday probably went something like mine: I jumped from bed to the computer, surfing to MSN.com's official Live Earth site (liveearth.msn.com), then switched on Bravo TV for daylong coverage, adding NBC's wrap-up show in the evening (a limited cable subscription curbed my channel surfing, at least). I plugged my household's other laptop into the stereo to enable another MSN.com stream, and then wandered from room to room, trying to catch as many highlights as I could.

The occasional twinge of guilt about how much globally warming juice was needed to feed all my electronics gave way with each freshly glimpsed performance, or commentary from concerned celebrities including Kevin Bacon and Cameron Diaz, or tips on how to "green" my house by adjusting my thermostat and reupholstering my chairs using old sweaters. With so much to absorb, reflection wasn't really an option.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Al Gore lecture: Ann Powers' Critic's Notebook on Live Earth in Monday's Calendar section referred to a PowerPoint presentation used by Al Gore in the climate-change documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." The former vice president used Apple Inc.'s Keynote program for the presentation, not PowerPoint.

Pondering Live Earth's messages can come during return visits to MSN.com's outstanding site -- highlights include short films at liveearth.msn.com/green/liveearthfilmproject by the likes of Sophie Muller and Rob Reiner (a reunion with Spinal Tap, which played at London's Wembley Stadium); interactive features including "Ask a Climate Expert"; and the video for Madonna's new inspirational anthem, "Hey You" (www.liveearth.msn.com/le/video), which she also performed as the London headliner -- backed, naturally, by a children's choir. As the spectacle unfolded in real time, though, thoughts of saving the Earth retreated in the face of astonishment at how small the planet has become.

In 1985, for Live Aid -- the famine-relief model now recast by Live Earth in hypertext -- Phil Collins jumped onto the Concorde at London's Heathrow after a performance at Wembley so he could also appear at Philadelphia's JFK Stadium. On Saturday, Collins reunited with his band Genesis and entered an endless loop in cyberspace alongside other such jet-setting artists as Rihanna, performing in Tokyo, and coloratura queen Sarah Brightman, who trilled in Shanghai.

Genesis also shared bandwidth with far-flung talents including Cantopop hunk Eason Chan, South African Kwaito musician Zola, Japanese electro-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, the Brazilian dance band Jota Quest, and even Nunatak, a surprisingly catchy (and courageous, given their bare hands in subzero weather) band of indie-rocking scientists in Antarctica.

This window into globalism, not Live Earth's political message or the performances of its headliners, was the festival's true innovation. Worldwide in scope but as manageable as a mouse-equipped desktop, Live Earth offered a vision of pop's future that argued for a kind of cosmic diversity.

Many of the corporate stars who pranced across its American and English stages delivered strong sets, but their overly familiar faces and sounds held less interest than what the grab bag from everywhere else offered.

That's how Live Earth felt on the Internet, anyway -- the only really exciting place to watch it. On television, which is beginning to look really archaic next to all those different kinds of screens, programmers still focused on the biggest names.

Some arena habitues were great: Metallica burned at Wembley, Alicia Keys stood out in New Jersey, and Shakira oozed conviction in Hamburg.

Collaborations stood out too: Keys pushed Keith Urban to a new level, singing the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend showed that touring together had brought them in tune on a cool version of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." The Police got some help from John Mayer and Kanye West on "Message in a Bottle" -- a fun surprise. (Performances can be viewed via www.liveearth.msn.com/concerts.)

As for the rhetoric this huge engagement of the fame machine communicated, it was most effective as a kind of trade show.

Bravo's coverage, particularly, highlighted ecologically sound products that viewers might easily incorporate into their domestic and work routines.

It was charming to see the earnest entrepreneurs hawking their wares, and easy to imagine purchasing them. Along with useful mantras such as "turn off your chargers" and "change your light bulbs to fluorescents," these spots made environmentalism seem manageable.

To those who would say focusing on consumerism isn't proper politics, it's worth noting that celebrity has been inextricably tied to consumer culture since Hollywood's founding. For Gore and his sympathizers to recognize and engage with this symbiosis is simple genius.

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