July 8th, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., July 8 – A concert for a cause is more and less than a concert. It’s public relations and proselytizing for the cause, while for the musicians, it’s exposure, validation and a sop to a star’s conscience. Live Earth, the biggest international rock event so far – with concerts on every continent including a small one on Antarctica – was presented as an attempt to save the human race from global warming.
Previous international concerts like Live Aid and Live 8 were about helping other people, while Live Earth, speakers insisted, was in everyone’s self-interest. There’s no need for altruism when your own survival is threatened. And in an era when pop is spectacularly self-absorbed, from the bragging of hip-hop to the whining of emo, Live Earth was perfectly pitched as an appeal to self-preservation.
The concerts were accessible online, on satellite radio and on television, overlapping for more than a full day of music from stars including the Police, Kanye West and Dave Matthews (New Jersey), Madonna (London), Shakira (Hamburg, Germany), Linkin Park (Tokyo), Sarah Brightman (Shanghai) and Vusi Mahlasela (Maropeng, near Johannesburg, South Africa). At Live Earth, the 1960s and 1970s figures who often seem to be the only ones to show up for benefits were scarce. Bands like Genesis (in London) and the Police and Roger Waters from Pink Floyd (in New Jersey) were among the elders.
It wasn’t an international cultural showcase, although aboriginal music opened the concert in Australia and American Indians performed in Washington. American and British-style rock and pop dominated all the lineups except the ones in Africa, with jubilant African dance music, and China, full of sticky-sweet pop. Germany and Japan favored rock and pop, but in their own languages. Around the world, musicians, speakers and videos urged viewers to sign a seven-point pledge, including personal conservation efforts and support for an international treaty reducing emissions. The stage set in New Jersey was row upon row of flashing lights, each one encircled by a (recycled) tire.
Some musicians had songs perfectly suited to the occasion. Madonna wrote a charity song, “Hey You,” for the event, though its lyrics – “Don’t you give up, it’s not so bad” – aren’t exactly eloquent. Dave Matthews sang “One Sweet World,” about mountains crumbling and rivers drying up, while the Police opened their set with “Driven to Tears,” which begins, “How can you say that you’re not responsible?”
Others sought out appropriate songs. At various concerts worldwide, there were multiple renditions of “What a Wonderful World” and, for some reason, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” – now apparently rededicated to the ozone layer. Alicia Keys latched on to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” part of a set full of gutsy soul-music remakes plus a new song of her own. A new lineup of the Smashing Pumpkins, the hardest-hitting band in New Jersey’s eight-hour show, roared through a pummeling hard-rock drone whose lyrics may have been “Air pollution!” John Mayer, leading a band that harks back to late-60s soul and early-70s blues-rock, played songs like “Belief” and “Waiting on the World to Change” that ponder how effective political convictions might be.
But many bands just pumped out their regular material, satisfied to entertain between messages. Kanye West, racing through his songs – and, at one point, sprinting the length of the stage as he rapped – may well have been riffing on the conspicuous consumption that fills his lyrics.
The former senator and presidential candidate Al Gore, whose movie “An Inconvenient Truth” set the concerts in motion, was in Washington on Saturday morning – where he introduced Garth Brooks in a concert on the Mall – and here in New Jersey on Saturday afternoon. He gave brief speeches that were simulcast across the time zones, while in Tokyo, a giant hologram of him appeared near the beginning of the concert. Melissa Etheridge, who wrote the theme song for “An Inconvenient Truth,” performed it as part of an extended anthem and narrative about the American dream, ending with a ringing endorsement of Mr. Gore.
In New Jersey, the musicians left most of the speeches to movie stars (Rachel Weisz, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Bacon) and scientists, including the primate researcher Dr. Jane Goodall, who got cheers for her rendition of a chimpanzee greeting. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., of the Natural Resources Defense Council, drew roars when he called politicians “corporate toadies.”
With “S.O.S.” on banners and flashing behind musicians on stages around the world, Live Earth set out to create a sense of urgency for action against global warming coupled with can-do optimism. Cameron Diaz insisted the message was “not gloom and doom.” The measure of the concert would be in political action and reduced energy use, but the music stayed upbeat. For the concert’s finale in New Jersey, the Police sang “Message in a Bottle” joined by Mr. Mayer on guitar – a longtime Police fan – and Mr. West doing a guest rap. “Sending out an S.O.S.,” Sting sang, and in between, Mr. West rapped, “We can save the world!”