Friday, June 5, 2009

Who the Hell is Bob Geldoff?

I was recently browsing through my archives of written work, and I stumbled upon a piece that I wrote on the 4th of July in 2005 right after being introduced to Bob Geldoff. Despite being raised in the 80s, I had no idea who he was until I saw him promote his second Live Aid in '05. Despite my writing this nearly 4 years ago, I believe it is just as relevant today as it was then.


Who the hell is Bob Geldoff? Until I saw him pop up on my TV last week to promote his new Live 8 concert, I had no idea who he was. So I asked my older sister about him and learned that he was the lead singer for a cheesy eighties rock band who threw a concert 20 years ago to raise money for Africa and has since been knighted by the British. I saw a man who is now celebrated as a visionary for his humanitarian work, which is undoubtedly a noble pursuit that attempted to affect real change. As a result of Live Aid, at least in part, the developed world has pumped tens of trillions of dollars in aid money into the continent over the past 20 years. But when you look at the statistics and the talking points being heaved at us now (and then), it is clear that very little has changed.

I know that throwing billions in food aid at the problem only prevents the growth of domestic agriculture in Africa. "Free food" competes with local producers, and diminishes the long term sustainability of domestic production leading to impoverished countries being unable to feed themselves in perpetuity. Should we put billions of dollars in a plane and rain money all over that continent? Who will benefit the most from that, the people starving to death, or the Warlords who have created the worst of the problem? You can't cure poverty without ending civil war and government corruption. Political stability is a precondition to economic prosperity. Therefore it has become a choice between Nation building or putting a band-aid on a broken leg. Considering current global opinion about the attempt at Nation building in Babylon, it is now as unpopular as ever to use military force to remove a corrupt regime; so how can aid improve living conditions in a country with a corrupt ruling regime?

When I watch these musicians demanding that my government spend more of my tax dollars on a solution to a problem that has not been working, I feel contempt. On one hand I don’t doubt that these self-indulgent superstars do feel that this cause is important, but they do benefit greatly from the positive press coverage that they receive. I think Ed the Sock said it best in one of his “EDitorials”, so I will include that wonderful piece of opinion at the end of my rant. When was the last time Bono or Geldoff got bad press? Ask Michael Jackson about the difference between good press and bad press. Lest developed nations feed impoverished nations forever, there will always be starving children on our television screen. Even when we try to feed them all, it never seems to be enough. Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him forever.

Let’s not talk about money. Let’s talk about solutions that actually work. So long as corruption and civil war reigns supreme in Africa, money will not help the average person. I care more about how the money is spent than how much money is spent. Should we get into the business of nation building? Defeating corrupt regimes so that the people need not suffer? Ending corruption can do more to end poverty than 100 trillions of dollars thrown out of an airplane. But Nation Building is very unpopular, so how do we end corruption? Perhaps we could offer corrupt governments a million U2 CDs to be nice? So lets spend billions on millions of U2 CDs to end corruption! Who benefits the most from that? A starving child in Africa, or Mr. Bono? For every article on the benefits of Live 8, lets talk about the benefits of such publicity for rock stars.

What has Sir Corey Haim done for us lately? Sir Vanilla Ice? Sir MC Hammer? Or should they hire a new publicist?


The story begins, appropriately enough, in Africa.

In 1985, Ethiopia was suffering from a devastating famine when UK rocker Bob Geldof organized Band Aid, a collection of Britain’s top artists that came together to record a benefit single for famine relief.

The single was “Do They Know it’s Christmas” – in retrospect, a stupid question to ask about a continent that has no snow and is overwhelmingly non-Christian. But I guess “Do They Know It’s Kwanzaa” didn’t have the same ring to it. But the charitable zeal spread across the pond as American stars organized USA for Africa and it’s benefit single – We Are the World – a sentiment that would later be echoed by a US president. Canada got into the act too with Northern Lights, the only celebrity benefit where the performers arrived by bus. Even eastern Europe got in on the action with a benefit song by the world-famous Shmenge brothers and Israel’s single, No They Don’t Know It’s Christmas, you meshuginnah goyem.

Emboldened by their successes, the biggest names from all the efforts came together in a giant benefit concert called Live Aid that was telecast globally and raised millions for the cause.

Not all the artists at Live Aid were top sellers…among the performers was a band known in the UK but otherwise rather obscure – an Irish rock combo called U2. The group had released The Unforgettable Fire a month earlier to a collective American yawn, but Live Aid launched U2 from uncharted territory to worldwide success.

The global exposure of Live Aid and the goodwill associated with it put U2 on the map. By 1985, Rolling Stone magazine was calling U2 “the Band of the Eighties.” All from the strength of Live Aid. In short, Africa was berry berry good to U2.

And here began the U2 pattern of major charity efforts coinciding with an album release or concert tour.

Which may be why Bono jumped at a chance to be a part of the single Sun City by Artists Against Apartheid, protesting the iniquities in South Africa. Humanitarian as his concern no doubt was – U2’s EP, Awake in America – didn’t start selling in the US until after Sun City was released…hmmm…African charity concert…album sales…African protest song…album sales…do you need to be a musician to see the rhythm? (See U2 Timeline)

But his time in Africa really sensitized Bono to the plight of Africans…in fact, he’s said to the press that Africa isn’t a was an emergency. (Bono has made this ‘emergency’ line part of his stump speech. Here are some examples)

So what was his response to this emergency? Ummmm…nothing for a few years, which is a strange way to respond to an emergency. It’s like paramedics putting you on hold.

1987 was the year it all hit for U2. Among the socially conscious rock fans of the 80s, U2 had become heroes for their politically charged music and African benefit music. The Joshua Tree became their biggest album ever, which they quickly followed up with the documentary film Rattle and Hum – which pushed U2 into full-blown overexposure.

But while U2 was finally finding major success…Bono didn’t feel the need to be a part of any big African relief project. (See U2 Timeline)

Hmmmmmm…apparently, the “emergency” in Africa seemed less immediate while people were taking his picture. While he did make mention of Africa from the stage, it seemed to backfire. Could it have been that a preachy multimillionaire rock star subsumed in an orgy of a concert tour trying make working-class crowds feel guilty about poverty might have seemed a trifle hollow?

And by the time of Achtung Baby and the ZooTV tour, talk of Africa and anything else political had given way to radio-friendly tunes and an over-the-top sensory display. And their follow-up PopMart tour was even more awash with mindless spectacle. Not just that, but critics had started noticing something about U2’s new music – it was crap! And the fans could smell it too as U2 played to less-than-full arenas and their tour almost went teats up.

Then suddenly, Bono re-discovered world suffering. But Africa somehow slipped his mind as he concentrated on the more headline-grabbing tensions in Bosnia. U2 played a concert for Sarajevo – right around the time they released a new single.

Then Bono sang on a benefit song for a British children’s charity, and he and the Edge joined the protest for debt relief for poor countries at the G8 economic summit in Germany – at the same time as they were promoting U2’s Greatest Hits CD.

Charity work…record work…record sales…charity work…record launch…charity work…record launch…didn’t Pavlov do this experiment with dogs?

In Germany, Bono met Jamie Drummond, the head of a UK campaign called Jubilee 2000 which was agitating world governments to cancel 100% of the debt for the world’s poorest countries…which of course still included Africa. Drummond reminded Bono that Africa, in the form of Live Aid, had made U2’s career, and it was time to give something back.

So Bono signed up and became a tireless cheerleader for the cause. Yet 2000 came and went and the debt wasn’t cancelled...but U2’s album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” debuted at number 1 in 22 countries. I’m sure all the free exposure Bono got from his charity work had nothing to do with it.

Bono kept going even after the Jubilee campaign wound down, and was in the process of producing a charity single for African AIDS relief when the planes flew into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. With 9/11 the focus of the world’s attention, Bono suddenly forgot about Africa again and diverted proceeds from the song to 9/11 relief efforts. What about African suffering, a crisis Bono had termed “an emergency?” 9/11 was just more immediate. Apparently, Bono practices a form of triage philanthropy.

But the 9/11 benefit song secured U2 a spot at that year’s Superbowl, where Bono literally wrapped himself in the American flag…after which All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which had been out for a while and had dropped down the charts, jumped more than 40 places on Billboard album charts, and The Elevation tour went on to become the second highest grossing tour of all time.

Sure – you could argue that it’s all a coincidence and Bono’s political activism just happens to coincide with U2 product launches. You may also find it a coincidence that Clark Kent disappears when Superman shows up. But at least Bono finally remembered the African emergency, and in 2002 he formed his own relief organization, Data.

Not related to the pasty-skinned Star Trek character, DATA stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa...or Democracy Accountability Transparency Africa…even they aren’t sure, which is consistent with the mixed messages of his organization, one day agitating for debt relief, the next day for money to fight African AIDS.

DATA’s professed goals are: “…to raise awareness about, and spark response to the crises swamping Africa: unpayable Debts, uncontrolled spread of AIDS, and unfair Trade rules which keep Africans poor.” – That’s a lot of newspeak which basically means they’ve created a charity to inform us that Africa is impoverished and ridden with illnesses.

Sally Struthers has been doing that in one minute TV commercials for 20 years. So, nobody else is working for African aid? HMMMMM…. So it seems that maybe there ARE a few others dabbling in the cause. So why create another charity to do what others have already been doing?

Well, those charities won’t do is splash Bono’s mug on every page of their website. What another charity will do is divert already thin resources to a duplicated effort, otherwise known as donor fatigue , defined by long-time relief group Doctors Without Borders as “a state in which donors no longer contribute to a cause because they have become tired of receiving appeals for donations.” In other words, too many charities asking for money, so all of them get less. Thanks Bono.

And what does DATA actually do? Again, according to its website: “DATA does not either directly offer program money to development projects on the ground nor does it make grants to implementing partners. DATA is solely focused on spreading the word about the crisis and advocating solutions that will work.”

Yes, you heard right. No medicine, no volunteers, no money for Africa. They say their purpose is to lobby Washington, but that’s the same purpose as the other 36,959 registered US lobby groups.

That’s a lot harder than selling iPods.

DATA also pushes governments to increase foreign aid to African nations. Bono has been really outspoken on the issue, even chiding politicians who don’t meet Bono’s stringent standards for aid levels.

Yes, Bono is all about telling countries to increase their foreign aid. And you know where countries get their funding for foreign aid? Tax dollars. Tax dollars, of course, come from taxpayers.

Know who isn’t a taxpayer? Bono. At least not on his earnings from U2. In his home country of Ireland, where thanks to pro-entertainer tax laws, the members of U2 pay no tax on their earnings from the band.

To put that into perspective, In 2002, Bono’s taxes alone from the Elevation tour would have been in the neighborhood of 3.5 million dollars…that’s not even factoring in album sales. (Based on band’s earnings for tour, split 5 ways, taxed at 25%)

If, according to African relief agencies, it costs $1 a day to feed a starving person in Africa. The money Bono avoided in taxes in one year from one concert tour – no album sales or other income factored in - could feed almost 3 ½ million starving Africans.

A picture is worth a thousand words….in Bono’s world, maybe they’re worth a thousand dollars too. They certainly are in PR value for an aging rocker fronting a mediocre band.


  1. U2 is just a mediocre band that has played everyone for fools and used charity work as free publicity for their band, and made millions off it.

  2. Yes, yes, yes.they are terrible. Just terrible. Bad music to boot. But then, they inspired scores of us to actually get involved, to "stop pouting on the sidelines and get in the game", to get into positions of influence where we can now shift the titanics that are WHO, UNAIDS, NIH, USAID, etc. to pay attention, to act, to bring results. So sure, many were flops, others sought the publicity. But those of us 20 years ago in our teens looking for role models, inspiration, direction found it -- some of us. And we'll be apart of the decades long effort to bring those silly, perhaps marketing ideals, into fruition. Watch us ...

  3. Tens of trillions of dollars and nothing changed? Way to go Bono...

  4. Thanks for posting this and I hope you don't ever take it down - it's the only place online I can find teh whole rant now...