The united states of impotence. Why aren’t global stars organizing Live Aid for Ukraine?

Imagine a hit protest song with the joint performance of, I don’t know: Rihanna, Adele, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift. Who else is a mega star today? And a concert broadcast across the world like at Wembley and JFK stadium in Philadelphia in 1985. Or at least something like “Miss Sarajevo” by Passengers (Eno/U2/Pavarotti). And proceeds from music sales and tickets would go to help the victims of the war and buy weapons for Ukraine...

In the past, popular music could be a catalyst for political and social change. Artists who were mega stars rolled up their sleeves and went to battle when they perceived international events to be immoral. They did it in various ways: they rebelled, organized spectacular concerts, composed special pieces and performed them together, recording special music videos, actively supporting charitable works. Russia’s invasion of independent Ukraine, however, did not evoke similarly effective and widely discussed reactions.

It's characteristic, considering the fact that the symbolic moment in which rock music, anti-war rhetoric and striving for social change, was the Woodstock festival in 1969, which took place under anti-Vietnam War banners and to a certain extent (according to some – significantly) contributed to its end. So Woodstock became the personification of the ethos of rock, which later, in various circumstances, was revived.
Rock army

The Woodstock phenomenon was of course – besides the political and social aspect – above all, music. And so it was, that the turn of the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the blossoming of rock. In 1969 alone, breakthrough tracks came out like: “Yellow Submarine” and “Abbey Road” by the Beatles, “Nashville Skyline” by Bob Dylan, “Led Zeppelin II” by Led Zeppelin, “In the Court of the Crimson King” by King Crimson and “Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” by Janis Joplin.

And then a fortunate confluence of events took place – ideas (including the anti-war ones) found an excellent medium in the form of a dynamically developing genre of music, as well as an enthusiastic army created by musicians and their fans. Without knowing to what degree everything that was happening in American counterculture was influenced by Soviet agents, we can say that this entire ferment turned out to be effective in the end, and over the long-term – with far-reaching consequences.

Similar, though on a smaller scale, was punk rock. The sharp edge of the socio-musical revolt was directed against ordinary social norms and the conservative politician, Margaret Thatcher. The wave of customary and aesthetic revolt that rolled through Europe in 1976–1980, and later, through post-punk across the entire 1980s, also ploughed through the mentality of the West.

In one voice

Perhaps the most spectacular act of unity of the world of pop, rock and alternative music, importantly, from the fringes of politics and social life, was a popular movement, which entered history under the name, Live Aid. Despite an element of improvisation, this action was surprisingly well-organized and complementary, as far as the choice of means.

Let’s look back. It’s 1985. Midge Ure (Ultravox) and Bob Geldof (The Boomtown Rats) decide to speak out about the starving residents of Ethiopia. They organize two gigantic charity concerts – at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. It was watched live by 1.5 billion people in 100 countries. The concert featured fragments of the shocking report of Michael Buerk (BBC) dedicated to those starving. Over 150 million British pounds were raised. Earlier, artists organized the issue of their hit singles “Do They Know It’s Christmas (in England) and “We Are the World” (in the US), the proceeds from which (given for aid to Africa to this day), amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Music and film stars sang “We Are The World”, a song written to benefit the victims of famine in Ethiopia. In the first row are: Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Sheila E., Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Kim Carnes, Michael Douglas and Janet Jackson. Photo Bettmann / Getty Images
Both concerts featured most of the important bands and soloists at the time, including: U2, Simple Minds, Ultravox, Queen, Madonna, Spandau Ballet, Sting, Bryan Ferry, Madonna, Dire Straits, Bob Dylan and The Who. These were gigantic events and even if the effectiveness of the material aid itself can be judged in various ways, Live Aid once and for all drew the attention of the masses living in prosperity in the West to the poverty in Africa.

Double standards

A cursory review of the involvement of musicians in various, important matters shows that pop culture really influences people. The lack of similar activities in the case of a war of the type that Europe hasn’t experienced for decades, is all the more surprising. Why have artists and their managers still not banded together in order to, in one voice, yell out “NO” to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After all, not long ago they could jointly welcome the presidency of Barack Obama (remember the huge concert on 20 January 2009 with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, U2, Beyoncé, Shakira, Will.I.Am, and Herbie Hancock) and to oppose the presidency of Donald Trump (concert of The National, Common, Prophets of Rage, so the combined efforts of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and Audioslave with Chris Cornell as the front man).

So, it looks like there are important and more important matters, and an artists conscience isn’t equally sensitive to each injustice. Right after Putin and his armies began their aggression against independent Ukraine, you had to search high and low to find any voices of opposition in the musical limelight. They appeared at a sluggish rate and they were rather lukewarm. Probably the biggest surprise was Madonna, who quickly, in her particular style, recorded a caustic music video comparing Putin to Hitler. Then, using social media, Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe, Sepultura, Public Enemy, David Lynch, Elton John, Massive Attack, Roisin Murphy, Robert Fripp, Sting, Pearl Jam, Nick Cave, Ulver, New Order and David Gilmour, spoke out and/or cancelled their concerts in Russia.

Artists known for their political activism were silent for a long time. Rage Against the Machine is silent to this day, Ministry only recently began to express their solidarity with Ukraine at concerts, and Roger Waters supposedly condemns Putin but immediately waters down his position by tying it to other military conflicts and displaying his anti-American rhetoric.

Ignorance, ideology, laziness

There may be several reasons for this state of affairs. The first, and most obvious, is ignorance. As far as Ukraine is important for Europeans, and above all, more or less known to us, for modern young Americans it isn’t a country that they are strongly tied to emotionally. In the era of global communications, this reason seems easy to overcome – Ethiopia also wasn’t especially well-known to people supporting Live Aid, but the mass information campaign raised mass empathy for this country and made it a symbol of years-long neglect of rich countries towards Africa. So the question remains about the sufficiently widespread information about the war.

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A second reason might be the ongoing, strong influence of intellectual trends (usually of leftist provenance), which see the balance of power in a very particular way: they see the aggressor to a large degree in American superpower status, than in Russian dictatorship, additionally made-up and tuned in a purportedly democratic and European way. In the optics of a large proportion of Western European and American intellectuals, the US and its allies are better suited to the role of villain. It is their policies, for example, towards the Middle East, are described as imperialistic in design, and not Russia’s towards Ukraine.

The next reason could be tied to the decline of the ethos of rock, which in its golden era could spur one on to battle and ignite ideologically. It was rock artists – to varying degrees of effectiveness – who tried to change the world, but... rock is passing away, or it has been dead for a long time. Through the mouths of its icons it can only make statements, but it doesn’t have the desire or the strength to do anything great. A5 In turn, young rock bands don’t pack that much of a wallop any more. Precisely, representatives of the generation of twenty and thirty-somethings, stars of R&B, rap and new pop, don’t – to put it bluntly – give a damn. They don’t want to endanger their “markets” and risk losing fans. Sorry buddy, business is business.

Too bad, since if pop culture really has such a big influence on young hearts and minds, and the opposition and outrage at the criminal actions of Vladimir Vladimirovich are ubiquitous in the West, then some kind of anti-Putin Live Aid could be an effective support in raising awareness about who the KGB tyrant is and that he has to be fought against... It could increase appreciation for Ukraine in the eyes of Russian youths (and youth around the world). Today, organizing something like this would of course be much easier than 37 years ago!

Imagine a hit protest song with the joint performance of, I don’t know: Rihanna, Adele, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift. Who else is a mega star today? And a concert broadcast across the world like at Wembley and JFK stadium in Philadelphia in 1985. Or at least something like “Miss Sarajevo” by Passengers (Eno/U2/Pavarotti). And proceeds from music sales and tickets would go to help the victims of the war and buy weapons for Ukraine... Not to say anything about media support. But who today would be able to follow in the footsteps of Midge Ure and Bob Geldof and could compose such good songs like they, Brian Eno & U2 or Lionel Richie & Michael Jackson?

– Marek Horodniczy
– Translated by Nicholas Siekierski
Main photo: The charitable Live Aid was organized as a continuation of the single by Band Aid “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the idea of Bob Geldof i Midge Ure. The grand finale at Wembley, included, among others, George Michael, Bono, Paul McCartey and Freddie Mercury. Photo: Staff/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
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