Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

Wait a minute, why don’t we hold a pop concert?

One of the highlights of Friday’s 46664 Hyde Park concert was watching Kurt Darren stubbing his musical toe like a shy eight year old. On stage with Eddy Grant and tasked with singing Give Me Hope Johanna with a domineering legend, Darren couldn’t even muster a single crotch thrust. “Give him a hand!” Grant playfully asked the crowd at the end of a song where the voice of South Africa’s opskop king was hardly heard at all. “He’s come a long way, from South Africa…” Pause. “He’s famous there!” Grant helpfully explained Darren’s presence on stage. Another highlight was witnessing the Sugar Babes flopping around the stage and butchering the world’s collective eardrum with singing so off-key it must have made entire societies question the meaning of life. On the (real) up side, Loyiso Bala pulled off a Stevie Wonder duet with Jamelia that might genuinely have scared the crap out of Mr Wonder, had he been watching. When filling a great songwriter’s shoes Bala looks to be as good, or better, than any singer in the world. Nice.

The celebrity freak show aside, however, the latest bout of 46664 compassion offered more disturbingly conclusive evidence that there are many, many people on this planet who actually believe that attending a pop concert will play ‘a vital role’ in dealing with HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, or reversing global warming. Astounding, but true. After Mandela’s guided tour to the mike was concluded by Graca I found it increasingly tough to fight off deep embarrassment at the idolatry placed on the man, and at the happy, feel-good faces of a crowd of suburbanites totally immersed in the idea of their own charity.

No one would dared have whispered it on that night, but more money (whether generated by fund raising or governments) is not the answer to Africa’s HIV prayers. Even presuming these sorts of events, once the immense expenses are deducted, make more than a few million bob and could ever come close to matching the spare change major corporations, Richard Branson, Oprah and national governments spill in their wake, the reality in South Africa is that we have money. There are budgets for HIV AIDS. But across the country budgets are unspent, or badly spent, because what we really lack is a squadron of people who are committed – in the context of their daily lives – to improving the lives of others. People who are out there, working. These we could do with many more of.

The actual, gritty roll out of aid, support and relief in Southern Africa you just can’t do from Hyde Park. And besides, HIV AIDS simply isn’t a stand alone thing. Yes, anti-retrovirals are essential to helping people with the disease, but poverty, unemployment, crime, corruption, illiteracy and the terrible circumstances of African slum living are at the root of South Africa and Africa’s ills, HIV AIDS included. Until they are addressed it doesn’t matter how many slightly drunk, fresh faced, Madiba-inspired Seffricans and Britishers you pack into a field. Nothing will change.

Ironically, this whole thing started with the Free Mandela concert a few decades ago and that event, above all others that have come before or since, really did have an impact, turning Mandela into an undeniable global icon with the ability to hurt the apartheid government more from inside jail than from without. But today the parade of concerts continues like a sickening form of perpetual motion. The gathering of people is self justifying and supported by highly normative language and thinking. You can make the difference. How? By being at this concert. It is in your hands. Repeat after me. We need action now. Thank you people, it’s through your presence that we are able to make a difference. What difference? You are here, now. Music. Funding. Awareness.

Yeah. Of course. This is how we’ll change the world. Surely Friday’s 46664 concert was, by any objective measure, merely a continuation of a long, slow slide down to irrelevance and indulgence?

Actually, in the Middle Ages one could literally purchase an indulgence directly from the Church – the indulgence facilitated the elimination of potential punishment for sins already committed and technically forgiven by Christian due process. The system got out of control in the later Middle Ages, with unlicensed touts flogging indulgences, forging paperwork and generally greedily tapping into mankind’s inherent desire to buy a way out of moral issues as painlessly as possible. George Monbiot, the environmental writer, has compared today’s carbon off-set paradigm to the Middle Ages indulgence system and questions how people can continue to justify spewing out ongoing emissions by supporting tree planting projects in third world countries. Monbiot suggests that instead of conducting these weird and complex carbon off-set equations we might – if we want to halt environmental degradation – actually have to stop polluting at some point in time. It’s a good point.

One gets a similar vibe off 46664. Can this series of events possibly be anything more than a modern indulgence… another way for larnies to have fun and feel like they’re changing the world at the same time?

Bizarrely, underneath it all, the existential angst of post-post-modern consumer life continues to echo across the crowds and the pop stars. It is this angst that seems to underpin the desire of people to ‘do something’. The 46664 the crowd would surely sing along just as happily were they at a Josh Ritter (a man often touted as the ‘modern’ Bob Dylan) concert. One can just picture them bellowing to a song like Golden Age of Radio, which actually expresses very eloquently the ideological black hole 21st ‘benefit concert’ goers find themselves in.

Living on the edge of the city limit line
this is where the boundary finally ends
I swear that we’re the last living souls in a populated ghost town
all the billboards are our best friends

which way did our last chance go?
and can we get out if we go right now?

it seems that with the malls and the mega church stadiums
we’d get out if we knew just how
with the radio on
singing a country song
soft and low…

Ultimately, we have to face the facts Ritter’s song make so clear. Even when touching deep emotions, or slicing revenue off for charity, pop concerts are just pop concerts. They change nothing. And by attending them, we change nothing. Even when we’re trying really hard, and saying all the right things, we merely continue what has gone before, and repeat the behavior that got us here in the first place.