Listening to Live Earth

Did Audiences “Hear” the World’s Biggest Concert?

As the twenty-four-hour, seven-continent, do-something-about-climate-change Live Earth concert was drawing to a close on Saturday, Microsoft reported that the event was, in fact, the biggest musical extravaganza ever. By mid-afternoon, MSN had delivered more than 10 million video streams to online viewers. Yet now, three days later, media pundits around the world are still wondering if audiences “heard” the message.

Columnists and critics responded cynically to Live Earth. At concert locations worldwide, Hollywood celebrities-including Al Gore, who helped organize and promote the event-appeared between top musical acts, encouraging fans to reduce their environmental footprints in the face of global warming. And at each venue, advertisements for Earth-friendly products and tips for green living abounded on video screens and posters. But it was not enough, according most media reports, whose authors have perceived a large degree of hypocrisy in the star-studded, commercially driven spectacle.

“If less is more, then why is bigger better?” asked Alessandra Stanley. Her article, which appeared in the The New York Times Arts section on Monday, is a careful elaboration of what many critics found so frustrating about Live Earth: too many platitudes, not enough point. Stanley scored a quote from Petra Nemcova-the supermodel who almost drowned in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami-that would make even the most diehard environmentalist bang his head against the wall: “While I was there I didn’t feel hate towards nature. I felt nature was screaming for help.” Stanley also criticizes the “flummery” of NBC anchor Ann Curry’s backstage coverage of the concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey: at one point Curry asked eco-activist Trudie Styler, “Why do you care so much?”

At the Jersey show-where Styler’s husband, Sting, headlined with his old band, The Police-the green message “fell on many deaf ears,” according to an article in The Christian Science Monitor. The writer, Tony Azios, has quotes from fans inside the concert complaining about littering and a lack of useful information about climate change and global warming. There is also a quote from Akon, another one of the concert’s performers, admitting that he did not know what “green” meant until the day of the show.

The most widely criticized artist at Live Earth was Madonna, who performed at London’s Wembley Stadium. Last Friday, one day before the concert, Fox News reported that Madonna’s Ray of Light Foundation had invested in numerous companies with poor environmental records. The article also pointed out the Material Girl’s own hefty carbon footprint, created by her music tours, multiple homes, and fleet of vehicles. Other Live Earth musicians came prepared to shrug off the tough questions. “If you want to peg me as not being entirely eco-friendly, you’ll win,” John Mayer told reporters after his set at Giants Stadium. Needless to say, his quote was very popular in the press.

The more serious criticism of Live Earth, beyond the eco-hyperbole, is that the concerts did more harm to the environment than good. Despite attention to recycling and composting at each of the venues, there have been complaints about the amount of garbage and climate-warming pollution generated in the process. Concert organizers insist that carbon offsets and renewable energy sources helped to mitigate the concert’s impact.

Perhaps, but Australia’s Daily Telegraph reported a shortcoming in the alternative power scheme. During the headline act at Aussie Stadium in Sydney, the lights went out. “After a few minutes,” reports Kathy McCabe, “organizers discovered they had simply run out of juice, the biodiesel fuel which powered the stage and arena lights. It was the first time anyone had used biodiesel for such a big concert.”

Despite such logistical snafus, the celebrity drivel, and the overwhelming consumerism, a few publications chose to applaud Live Earth and its promoters. Joan Anderman, writing for The Boston Globe, was probably the event’s most strident defender in the mainstream media. “To complain about the performers’ shortcomings as environmentalists is to miss the point,” she writes. “They weren’t enlisted as role models. They were there to deliver an audience-2 billion strong if estimates are accurate, via television, satellite radio, and the Internet.”

Anderman makes a point that should have received more attention from the media. There is a facet to the Live Earth extravaganza that goes beyond climate change and the environment. The concerts, at least in the U.K., got horrible television ratings, but the 10 million video streams that MSN sent to online viewers mark an incredible achievement in the development and distribution of digital media.

The Associated Press’s Erik Schelzig got at another piece of this development in an interview with Al Gore during his Saturday train ride between the concert in Washington, D.C., and the one in New Jersey. “Gore turned back criticism that the concert series lacked immediate goals beyond generally raising awareness about climate change,” Schelzig writes. “The concerts are just the first step in a three-year public relations campaign, he said.”

That is important because, whether you like Gore’s message or not, the former vice president is modernizing traditional forms of activism-environmental or otherwise-with his emphasis on multimedia solutions. Ann Powers, at the Los Angeles Times, was the only columnist to give this angle any serious attention. Live Earth “undoubtedly spiked awareness about environmentalist causes,” she writes, “but it paid off more directly as an experiment in cultural interconnection across time zones and in the floating realm of the Internet.”

Although Powers concedes that the celebritization of Live Earth detracted from the message about environmental stewardship, she dismisses criticism that “consumerism isn’t proper politics.” Stringing together ethnically diverse acts across seven continents, while touting environmentally friendly and easy to use products, was “simple genius,” Power writes. “This window into globalism, not Live Earth’s political message or the performances of its headliners, was the festival’s true innovation.”

It would have been nice if more journalists and pundits had tucked into this aspect of Live Earth, which is far more interesting than the reflexive cynicism. Was the enormity of Live Earth its ultimate sin or its ultimate salvation? The answer is debatable. Unfortunately for the press, it’s impossible to tell how many of the people that listened to Live Earth actually “heard” what was said.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.