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Live Hate: Bob Geldof Addresses SXSW 2011

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And he can see no reason/Cause there are no reasons/
What reason do you need to be shown
– “I Don’t Like Mondays” by Boomtown Rats

Hi there and thanks for checking back in. Hopefully you should enjoy this week’s outing as well, unless you’re someone that, say, saw the title of last week’s piece and immediately dismissed it because it had the same title as another piece on the site despite being two completely different articles with two completely different takes on the same situation. In that case, I don’t know what to tell you.

This week is all about a keynote address given at this year’s South By Southwest. None other than the legendary Bob Geldof gave that address this past week, and he was certainly…shall we say, opinionated.

Before we go any further, I should probably explain why Geldof is considered “legendary” (at least by me) before the controversy hits the comments section. Yes, Geldof, as a member of the Boomtown Rats, had approximately one hit, “I Don’t Like Mondays.” One hit hardly qualifies a music legend. But outside of his recording endeavors (which he still does), the man was responsible for staging the largest concert in the world. Twice. Not a lot of detail will be spent here recounting why Geldof should be recognized for Live Aid and Live 8, because it’s already been done. (Feel free to peruse that at your leisure.) Basically, if you’re able to stage shows that big for a great cause and make the entire planet stand up and take notice not once but twice, that is a feat of legend. Hence, my justification.

Bob GeldofBack to the matter at hand, quite a few probably may not have called Geldof “legendary” after his SXSW address. Then again, given the reception of the speech, some have reaffirmed that description. It all depends on if you fall on the side of a desire for real music or a corporate drone who’s fine with playing the violin on a sinking ship. It also depends on whether or not you’re a fan of Glee, or iTunes, or Facebook. Mainly, it may fall on your opinion on popular music in general, especially rock, because Geldof thinks that “America’s great cultural gift to the world” is dying:

“Rock ‘n’ roll needs to be against something. It can’t just BE. It always needs a function in which to function. Of course there are great songs. There will always be great songs that don’t suggest anything other than being a great song. But … where are our Ramones or our [Sex] Pistols today? Do we need them? Yes is the answer. Will they be found? Maybe not.”

Geldof took it one step further after bringing up several pertinent issues affecting the world today—think of who we’re dealing with here—and turned his attention back to the music, and how it deals with social issues:

“What’s music got to say? … I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. I don’t hear the disgust in the music; it doesn’t have to be literal, it can be suggested. Can you imagine the ’60s without the bands interpreting the fast-moving agenda of the times? Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives the illusion of talent. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say.”

“People talk about the demise of the industry, and people in the industry are worried, but the industry is only a function of the music. And the music is only successful when it’s relevant. The industry will not exist on the caterwauling of divas or pretty boys with lovely mouths. This thing we call content is actually about this conversation society has with itself. Rock music provided that: It is intensely powerful, this little minor art form we occupy ourselves with. And when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, then entertainment might be the politics of our time.”

As far as the state of music itself—not the industry, or trends, but the meat of what he’s getting at, the apparent state of life support that music and, in particular, rock is currently in—I think he’s spot-on. The loss of a real voice in rock has been a deeply rooted but yet seldom considered problem that has plagued the genre for a long time. There are spells here and there, such as when many musicians went out of their way to protest—both in song and otherwise—the last presidential administration. But even something with that short of a span was enough to make the old beast look viable again.

Currently, however, there seems to be nothing substantial being said at all. George Braques once said, “Art is a wound turned to light.” If there’s no wound to be had, however, then what exactly is there to shed light on?

Many would hearken back to Nirvana as being the disenfranchised voice of a generation. However, Cobain was also one of the first to say that Nirvana wasn’t saying anything at all to that effect. Now, we can see that it was the sound of someone fed up with the malaise of the time and spoke to it. If Nirvana appeared today, what would the landscape be like for the band?

Lady GaGaLet’s look at the landscape today. This is a time when being a celebrity for the sake of being a celebrity and the culture’s obsession with that is the big issue of the day. Small but powerful nations are rocked by earthquakes, human rights are being trampled all over the world, including here at home, but the one thing that unites everyone is the love or hatred of a teen pop star.

Another example of this very thing can be seen at this very event. Geldof gives a keynote speech that really should be heard, but which goes virtually unnoticed. Meanwhile, the big news coming out of SXSW is a surprise set by Duran Duran. Not a mark against Duran at all—love those guys—but it’s a perfect example of how celebrity overtakes substance.

No one is unified on a central issue. Not even close. That self-segregation and focus on self-importance aided and abetted by the Internet may very well have crippled rock music as a voice. So many are saying things so differently that it has caused a fissure. At the same time, all of it seems to be focused on those that are famous, whether they have a reason to be or not.

Those that may be looking to say something unique may be drowned out by a public that almost has no idea what it really wants because so many sources of information and entertainment are available—making it oh-so-very-easy to get lost in the world of the jet set—that it’s nearly impossible to focus on anything with any real substance. People seem so afraid of not being “hip” and knowing who Justin Bieber fans targeted this week that they lose sight of the idea behind art as communication, a summary that Geldof brilliantly gave during his address:

“Will you find that essential noise [at SXSW]? Probably not. Cool bands, I’ve heard about a million of them. People told me, ‘Go see them, go see them.’ The music I hear is continental navel-gazing. Don’t do it. Look up. Address the world with that confidence that is strictly the province of this country. Don’t turn inward. Don’t be scared of the future. Look at it cold-eyed and try to create a new world, with your values.”

The problem with that seems to be that the only statement people seem to be interested in making revolved around the idea of celebrities and how easy it may be to become one. Think I’m off base? Be back in seven days—I promise—when we’ll look at just how easy it is to become famous, courtesy of Rebecca Black. Until next time, thanks again for reading.

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About Michael Melchor

Michael Melchor has covered pop culture in all its forms for several publications and websites, including BackStage Pass magazine, 411Mania.com, and Examiner.com.
  • Sir Bob delivered the goods on this one. Nuclear disasters, three wars, terrorism, rights under attack, cities destroyed while governments sit idly by and all these indie rockers can do is write twee songs about themselves. The next punk movement better come soon and it better come fast. JB, RockandRollTribe.com

  • Sounds like Geldof was right on the money to me. But then, how can you argue with the star of PINK FLOYD: THE WALL?

  • Heh – post SXSW brainfog: meant to say “The next punk movement better come soon and it better come BIG.”

  • Just read the thread on rockandrolltribe.com, Jon. Glad yeh liekd the piece.

    Seems to me that if rock has to rail against something right now, it’s the culture of instant celebrity and the resultant apathy. Ironically enough, it seems no one cares enough to do that, though.

  • I’ve always had time for Bob Geldof, despite his largely dire music; he’s certainly more interesting as a cultural commentator than a creator.

    The problem is that rock can’t rail against anything any more. The world has changed too much since those simpler times when Punk was young and actually meant something.

    Not sure whether it has been defeated or won, but when I see and hear bands and people aping the sounds, styles and attitudes of 30 years ago it is pretty depressing.

  • Glad you stopped by the Tribe and paid a visit Michael!

    One thing that can spark a new movement is general disgust with current music. As much as politics, what spawned punk in the 70’s was a reaction to big bloated arena rockers. Perhaps young musicians will look at vapid r&b, twee indie “rock” and long-past-its-expiration-date hip hop and use that as the fuel to get jacked up enough to put up their dukes. We can hope…

  • Paul Cherashore

    Jon Pareles dismissed Geldof’s speech in the NY Times: “He might have changed his mind had he seen Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the teenage Los Angeles hip-hop collective that tore across this year’s SXSW. Rapping about drugs, rape, murder, getting pulled over by the police….”

    I don’t know how one band can be “the” response to Geldof’s criticism, especially since they’re representatives of only one segment of the music market, but at least their name reflects honest feelings. Most of the rest of the stuff from SXSW I’ve heard has been musically sound but leaves me feeling numb inside. (I think that’s one side of the coin everyone has missed–the emphasis on musical professionalism at the expense of meaningful content.)

  • Dik Waste

    Sir Bob was always in it just for the $$$$. His commission for the song writing royalties for “Don’t they know it’s Christmas, back in 1986 was reported to be in the millions. But Geldof did not donate the windfall back to the staving Africans he was ostensibly working to feed at Christmas Time, he kept the cash to build his infamous “Castle Hilt”, a 40 room French Revivalist Stone and timber creation costing a cool 8 million US dollars. Tell that to a thirsty, hot staving African. Geldof hates Ebay because from the battlements of his mock castle, ebay is proletariat.

  • BrooklynStandUp

    Well personally, I find Mr. Geldoff to be not only an interesting man but a rare one. Not only did he arrange two of the largest concerts in history for a great cause, but he also adopted the basically orphaned daughter of his ex wifes with a man hom she cheated on him with during the course of their marriage (not saying she was conceived then). Thats a pretty rare man. Also, how does anyone know what this man did or does with monies he earned during the course of his career? It wasnt just one hit that put money in his pocket.He had done a plethora of things to support himself and his family. Nobody knows what his contracts were like for any of his musical endeavers or anything else for that matter. Its quite unfair and out right rude to suggest he lives a lavish life off donations etc etc etc. He sure should get paid something, dont u think? If you did what he did and it took away from other money making endeavers, wouldnt u have to get paid somehow? Some way? To suggest that those concerts were for him and the majority of that money went into his own pocket is absurd. He didnt have to do it, he wanted too and it benefitted tons of people. Question to those bashing him: What have you done? Does it come close? U better knock it off. Just stop the madness.