Elvis Costello once famously said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture -- it's a really stupid thing to want to do." While music writers like myself try to push that quote to the farthest reaches of memory, its summoning seemed inevitable watching this weekend's Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. Perhaps Costello was making a bit of a metaphorical leap; after all, he's written quite extensively on popular music.
But try this for size: singing the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to eliminate African poverty is like dancing about architecture. Does it still sound like a reach?
Indeed, Geldofathon B (second-place behind London sounds fair) proved to be a paradoxical and flimsily-founded enormity. Nearly every artist who came onstage in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, gazing into the eyes of one mill . I mean 600,000-800 . I mean 300,000-400,000 people (in a week the estimate is sure to be even lower) went into their own cliche diatribe pressuring Mr. Bush to increase African aid. Each was also quick to note the audience's great service in supporting this cause. And while each attendant certainly felt Africa's pain, they were really doing as little as possible to fix the problem. The relationship between attending a free concert and lifting sub-Saharan Africa from almost irrecoverable despair seems also to fall into the "dancing about architecture" realm of non sequitur.
Surely many attendees felt in the pit of their stomachs that the effort was misdirected, but it was excusable. That such an enormous endeavor came to be in the first place, and that its goals were so dead-on and seemingly earnest in relation to the real plagues afflicting the world today, was enough to make up for its debatable course of action. While not all of the attendees will devote their lives to eradicating African poverty, the concert at least provided them a working knowledge and awareness of the incomprehensible suffering in one of the world's most storied regions.
The show itself was oftentimes exciting, but frequently frustrating. The main culprit was the poor sequencing. The best acts -- Kanye West, Destiny's Child, Jay-Z and Linkin Park, the Kaiser Chiefs and, dare I say, Will Smith and Bon Jovi -- were nearly all in the lineup's first half. So as the sun grew more unmerciful, so did the artists. Toby Keith played a ditty called "Beer for My Horses." Maroon 5's Adam Levine went through a bland rehash of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," and throughout his group's set came off as a bit arrogant. The Jars of Clay were incompatible with the large venue, and Rob Thomas, somehow the penultimate performer, surprised fans by still existing. If anything, the worst acts at Live 8 reinforced the ineptitude of contemporary alternative rock.
Stevie Wonder closed the proceedings, so some light turned up at the end of the tunnel. The only problem with Mr. Wonder's set was the guest appearances of Rob Thomas and Adam Levine. Don't artists like Beyonce, Kanye West and Jay-Z deserve the opportunity to share the stage with a legend a bit more? Granted, they had probably left by then.
Live 8 v.Philly had its share of mistakes both on paper and in practice. Crowds endured close-packing, exhaustive heat, so-so performers and being beaten over the head with statistics for seven hours, but very few left the show without a smile on their face. The show was beneficial to the city and meant very well. Perhaps everyone was just dancing about architecture, but they were dancing their hearts out.