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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 June, 2005, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
What do pop stars know about the world?
VIEWPOINT
By Brendan O'Neill

Pop and rock stars are nowadays as influential in government circles as they are among their teenage fans. Is this necessarily a good thing?

There has always been a little bit of politics - as Ben Elton might say - in pop and rock music.

Ever since a wild-haired Bob Dylan sang The Times They Are A-Changin' in 1963 - in which he warned senators and congressmen that "There's a battle outside and it's raging" - popular singers have ventured, with varying degrees of success, into the world of political protest and dissent.

Some 40 years later, the times really have a-changed. Politically inclined pop stars no longer strum their frustrations in catchy three-minute tunes; they have become global statesmen instead. They no longer only play political songs but have become real political players.

Bono meeting US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice

Take Live 8, the global gig being organised by former Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof and one-time Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, due to take place in London, Berlin, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Paris, Philadelphia and Rome on 2 July.

In the run-up to the concert pop stars have been everywhere, proffering their views on what the powerful G8 nations should do to tackle poverty and pestilence in Africa.

But what do pop stars really know about the world? And why should the views of these well-heeled singers of throwaway songs be taken more seriously than anybody else's - which they are, everywhere from Whitehall to the White House?

World audience

In recent months, Geldof and Bono of U2 seem to have become the unofficial (and certainly unelected) spokesmen for Africa.

In an article in London's Evening Standard earlier this month, headlined "Why Africa needs U2", Bono declared: "I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all... They haven't asked me to represent them. It's cheeky but I hope they're glad I do."

Since when do statesmen bow down to rock stars?
Connie Woodcock, Toronto Sun
World leaders seek an audience with Bono in the way they might once have sought an audience with the Pope. He has been photographed rubbing shoulders with President George W Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

And he gave a rabble-rousing speech at the Labour Party conference at the end of last year, in which he referred to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as the John and Paul (as in Lennon and McCartney) of global development.

Inaction

It is sometimes easy to forget that Bono is only a rock star - a stadium-filling and million-selling rock star, granted, but a rock star nonetheless. And yet he chastises political leaders, including Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for their inaction on global poverty.

Bob Geldof (r) and Gordon Brown
Geldof is now a powerful political figure
This has led one British newspaper columnist to argue: "It's about time we instigated a prestigious award for the first world leader to tell Bono - the David Brent of pop - to get lost."

Geldof has also become a jet-setting political spokesman for the poor and destitute.

He recently caused controversy in Canada (a G8 nation) when he told Prime Minister Paul Martin not to bother showing up at the G8 meeting in Edinburgh on 6 July unless he was prepared to increase Canada's foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP.

Canadians weren't best pleased with Geldof's "snarling and snapping at big league politicians", as one columnist described it.

"Since when do statesmen bow down to rock stars?", asked Connie Woodcock of the Toronto Sun. "I'm sure Geldof means well, but where does this second-string musician get off telling Paul Martin he doesn't like our foreign aid spending?"

Live 8 also features many pop artists not known for their philanthropic streak, political acumen, nor in many cases for having anything interesting at all to say.

Self-appointed politicians

There are no doubt good intentions behind Live 8, and nearly everyone can agree with the broad aim to "make poverty history". But how did we get to a situation where individuals from the world of pop and rock - a line of work (if you can call it work) not previously taken very seriously - have become self-appointed politicians strutting the world stage?

Chris Martin
Coldplay's Chris Martin is one of those who has campaigned
Neal Lawson, chair of the left-leaning think tank Compass, says he is not 100% convinced that Live 8 will have a lasting political impact. But he reckons we should welcome the new kind of politics being fronted by the likes of Geldof and Bono.

"People like Geldof can bring some passion to events and galvanise people, and we shouldn't write that off," he says. "In our less deferential and more decentralised world, people are looking for political inspiration elsewhere, outside of parliamentary politics.

"And Geldof seems to offer something that our old steam-age politics cannot: he can mobilise people quickly and get them to feel passionate about an issue."

Lawson says we shouldn't be too worried if, as Live 8 cynics have claimed, some of the pop acts are taking part only to boost their record sales.

"Does it matter if they do it because they've got a record coming out or because they want to perform for millions of TV viewers? The important thing is that they are doing something, and in this time of political flux we should grab what we can."

Political vision

James Panton, a lecturer in politics at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University, disagrees. He thinks it is the "exhaustion of political vision" that has allowed "these petty celebrities with their banal and limited arguments to take centre stage". "And that's a bad thing," he argues.

"Live 8 is about moralising rather than positing a genuine political alternative," says Panton. "In place of an attempt to analyse and understand the world - all the better to change it - we have Geldof and others telling Africa: 'We feel your pain'."

Live 8 isn't perfect, but how many millions has it got talking about poverty?
Neal Lawson
As for the politicians queuing up to meet Geldof and Bono, Panton says, "It is a frightening indictment of the state of politics to see people like Gordon Brown kow-towing to people like Geldof.

"That, to me, looks like a sad expression of the professional politician's own lack of ambition and vision, and their sense of being out of touch with the public. They hope that some of the rock star's credibility will rub off on them."

Neal Lawson remains more upbeat. "Live 8 isn't perfect", he says, "but how many millions has it got talking about poverty in the third world? That is a good start."

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of Spiked magazine.


To quote Neal Lawson: "Live 8 isn't perfect", he says, "but how many millions has it got talking about poverty in the third world?" Errr... well none actually. More people are talking about the Pink Floyd reunion.
Lucho, Bristol

There's an element of popularity and representating the people, here: I'd like to think that someone *not* paid to be a politician might be able to use their influence from another scene to raise issues' visibility. Let those who have the funds and status give what they can back to the world in a suitable way. Either that, or what would you prefer? The next Oliver Cromwell marching to Westminster to give the government the sharp end of revolution?
Tim, Perth, Scotland

"Banal and limited arguments" - So it's banal to proclaim that 30,000 preventable deaths every day is unacceptable? Demanding that our political leaders take concrete action to address world poverty is a "limited argument"? Long may it continue. Bob Geldof may not be to everyone's taste, and some of his recent pronouncements may suggest he's starting to believe his own publicity - but credit the man with looking hard inside himself, realising that he couldn't live with himself if he did nothing to change things, and is doing the most effective thing he can - stirring up public opinion to put pressure on the politicians.
Martin Buck, Tamworth, Staffs

In many ways there is a risk that Live8 helps mask the issues facing the leaders in the G8 summit. With the inevitable simplification of the issues involved it may allow the G8 leaders to get away with popularly writing off debt (laudable, yes), while at the same time continuing to tie poor countries to enforced privatisation and trade liberalisation. We have to hope that others, more aware of development politics will be able to make themselves heard above U2 or Coldplay...
Owen, Southfields

At present amoung young and old there is a widespread apathy. Therefore, I think that it is a good for anyone to contribute to political debate or action, whatever thier profession. We should not just encourage politicians to be political, as they can't possibly represent all aspects of society today.
Zoe, Bishops stortford

Unelected or not, Geldof's views on Africa are closer to mine than any of world leaders and most politicians. Whether the likes of the Spice Girls and others really care or know about the issues, is immaterial. Live 8 has got all the pundits, commentators and politicians talking about Africa, and sent it to the top of the Agenda - Perfect.
Dave , Crawley

Bono, Geldof and their fellow pop stars are not our leaders, but they are, for once, providing a leading example to us all. Nothing is to stop you, I or anyone else standing up against injustice, except for our own appathy. If we're going to raise a critical eye, we should turn it on ourselves and ask what contribution we are making to stand up for the rights of those who have no voice. Thank God for men of concience like Bono and Geldof who go with their convictions, I pray that you and I will follow their example.
Mike, London

As the great Homer Simpson once said, "rock stars, is there anything they don't know?!"
Nat , Birkenhead

As far as I can see Bono & Geldof are only doing good by raising awarness and to criticise this seems a little unjustified.
Cathal Black, Dublin

I'm tired of hearing pop stars going on about the world¿s problems; they come across to me like a bunch of rich but guilty socialists.
Tom, London

You just need to listen to the genius lyrics of Busted's "Sleeping With The Light On" to realise that even our best musicians are completely up to date with modern politics.
Gavin McMenemy, Edinburgh

Sure you can take a cynical view of the Live 8 concert and argue that it is doing nothing more than helping a bunch of overpaid musicians to sell even more records, but I agree with the comment above that in this day and age of political apathy, having new political role models to aspire to and motivate people into action is no bad thing at all. But why should it be limited to the music industry? The top earners in the sporting world are reaping hundreds of millions of pounds every year for their talents, I've no doubt far more than the highest paid music stars to appear at Live 8. Where is their contribution?
Kenny, Nottingham, England

I am not sure that I am comfortable with rock stars telling elected officials how to run the world. But, let's face it, if elected officials were doing a proper job, the likes of Bono and Bob Geldof would not need to get involved.
Jayne, Slough, England

I could not agree more. The virtue that Bono and Geldof seem to lack is humility. I find their contributions to the debate on poverty are hectoring, simplistic and hysterical. They seem utterly certain that they have the answers to the world's problems and I would quite like to tell the 2 of them where to stick it!
Misha Voikhansky, Birmingham

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VOTE RESULTS
Who do you think has more credibility?
Politicians
 20.51% 
Pop stars
 15.57% 
Neither has any
 63.92% 
10303 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
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