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SXSW 2011: Keynote speaker Bob Geldof compares Web music to 'the half-witted mutterings of the village idiot'

60229639-18105644 The irony of some of keynote speaker Sir Bob Geldof’s remarks on Thursday morning at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, were palpable. As thousands of musicians of all sounds, shapes and sizes converged on the festival to sing, rage, bellow, croon and dance, inside the Austin Convention Center, Geldof, the singer, songwriter, humanitarian and honorary knight of the British Empire, complained about the sheer volume of music being produced today, comparing the combined output to “the half-witted mutterings of the village idiot in the dark corner of the local pub.”

Given that a majority of bands over the five-day music showcases are, quite literally, performing in dark corners of 6th Street pubs, it was hard not to make a connection, and that Geldof was there to rain on everybody’s parade. Over the course of his hour-long keynote, the singer, who’s best known as the organizer of the 1985 Live Aid concerts for African relief, looked the music of today straight in the eye and found it severely lacking.

Expressing outrage at the economic inequality that's permeating the lives of the many, Geldof wondered where the voices are to convey that feeling: “What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it."

Courageous stuff, delivered as it was from a podium from the smartly dressed, witty, eloquent Irishman who, 36 years earlier had defiantly introduced himself to the world with the line, “The world owes me a living.” The song, "Looking after Number One," wasn’t about selfishness per se, but about the feeling of a perfectly able man standing in line for his dole check and wondering what the hell he ever did wrong to deserve such a fate.

Music, he explained, is the best tool to deliver this message of outrage, and throughout the address Geldof walked around on stage, comfortable and in his element, citing the musical heroes of the past who transcended individualism to speak for entire populations, from Howlin' Wolf to Mick Jagger and John Lennon to the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones. He drew a distinct line between "good" music and "bad" music, and suggested in so many words that we're currently living in a world with a lot of bad music, and that somebody needs to step up and overthrow the proverbial institution that rock 'n' roll has become to send shockwaves across the world.

It was a complicated and intriguing conversation, even if at times Geldof came off sounding like a grandpa complaining that they don’t make music like they used to. It echoed, more or less, music critic Robert Christgau's defining essay on what he termed the "mono-culture," the shared conversation that we as a society used to have about culture, and how that has been lost as genres and subgenres have carved out increasingly small but vital scenes. One didn't have to look too far to hear what he was talking about. South by Southwest is a world of mini-scenes coming together for five days -- and passing each other on the streets as they move within their little worlds.

But the Strokes on Thursday night proved that there remains a hierarchy, and that when a voice catches on with more than one scene, it grows into a bigger band with a bigger voice. Ditto Arcade Fire. Ditto Kanye West. (It's interesting to note how in his entire keynote in which he decried the lack of unifying voices, he never once mentioned hip-hop, which, like rock 'n' roll before it, has become the global lingua franca. It's also worth mentioning that Geldof dismissed the entire musical output of the 1980s by citing Duran Duran -- without acknowledging Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" or Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," both of which are examples of music steering the conversation.)

Still, it's hard to argue with his point that we lack unifying voices, and that the music world is so fragmented and saturated that it's hard for anything to be heard. And that in times prior, music has helped frame political conversations in ways that artists never imagined, and that it has power to impact not only individuals but entire constituencies. The problem, he said, was complacency. "I don’t hear the disgust in music, and I need to. It doesn’t have to be literal. It has to suggest it."

He then declared music to be "the most powerful cultural tool that has been invented in a dozen lifetimes. Music is dangerous." That being the case, Geldof concluded, "We need someone to pause, to reflect, to consider, to be wise, to make decisions, or to interpret, to stop time for a moment, and suggest. And that seems to be the function of the artist."

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Bob Geldof. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (22)

How on earth did this whole entire article happen without any mention of RATM? Quite popular, and very good at pushing a message out to the masses. I mean, I can hear his point, and it's always good to think about. But just because the music of rebellion no longer sounds like Bob Dylan and the Rollin Stones doesn't mean the vitrol has left music. I just think he's looking in the wrong places.

Hey Bob, ever hear of a song called "Paper Planes" by M.I.A.? Not only is it a great-sounding song, it completely encapsulates the misunderstanding we Americans have for third worlders. This song isn't even obscure--it was a huge hit.

Music may be stupid now, but hasn't it always been stupid? What economic comment is "Surfing Bird" making? I agree with the writer that his talk makes him sound like an Alter Kaker.

As they say, if it's too loud, you're too old.

Despite the fact the man practically spat on me when he heard I was a promotion person for a major US record label when i met him in the UK many years ago, I've never not been impressed with him. ...as a humanitarian, a character, a malcontent & as an artist.

After all, he was prophetic in "suggesting" the media's awakening to a new generation of aimless, desensitized, disenfranchised youth when he noted "the silicon chip inside her brain got switched to overload..."

Geldof then went on to complain about those darn kids sitting on his lawn

I couldn't agree more. Ke$ha anyone!?

using The Strokes as an example of anything is bad - they suck.

“What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it."

Asked and answered.

I don't think its going to get any better of go back to the old ways of music and song being a powerful dangerous cultural tool.

I think that was a golden age that will never be repeated. And bands like the Strokes much like all these rocker kids going around looking like AC/DC rejects along with plaid shirt artsy fartsy hipsters are just bad shallow imitations of what once was.

Hip Hop was scary, when Public Enemy started moving "entire constituencies" in the late 80's, early 90's along with harder Ice-T albums and so on. But something happened a few years later.

The music industry started letting thugs and actual gang bangers, gang members into the studio and the messages were destroyed, the power of what PE was doing dissolved. Introduced was 40-ouncers and weed with hardly anything really to say other than rap about how it was down in LB. And what?

All that did was usher in a whole genre destoying phaze in popular music and an influence on popular culture that we have yet to fully shake. Gangbanger thug-life gangsta hip hop destroyed Funk, R&B, Soul, Blues is barely hanging on but nice and safe, like modern day Jazz which is music for the comfortably numb.

My point being is that with the internet and cultural things in place and the way music technology and music instrument manufacturers, music production software companies, all have a hand in this demise as they provide truly untalented dumb people with nothing to say the tools to tap on instruments, work a mouse, barely, and bob their heads like the village idiot.

And let's not forget two other contributers to this, no three, first the audience, young kids who have no knowledge of musical history. Of where or what The Blues is for example. What Funk is, etc.

Then you have the cowardly geek culture that lauds and supports any village idiot acting out 'hard' in front a mic. Cowardly because the pop-cultural things they create are usually if not entirely violent, stereotypical, borderline racist and sexist. But they have no real life experience or nor do they feel they are responsible to the larger public in that what they create may have very negative or vapid consequences.

Events like SXSW are now a convention of just how powerful geek-culture has become. And the less hip adults in the media want in, look at CNN's ingratiation amidst the Japanese disasters.

Combine all this and in my view, having experienced all kinds of musical movements and it seems its not going to get better or go back to the way Geldof wishes it were.

And lastly, one thing I really dislike is agism as really easy way to discredit and distract from what Geldof is saying.

"if it's too loud, you're too old"

It is too loud, its always been to loud and as you age you are more sensitive to loud noises because when you were young you stood by that huge amp at a concert and thought "if it's too loud, you're too old". Now you have tinnitus and ear sensitivity.

I dunno, I just don't like it when people try to make older people look stupid or like what they say is based on a old bitter man complaining about kids on his lawn.

I was raised to respect the older, wiser, experienced people.

RATM sure had a lot to say, but people know they are phony. At Coachella a few years ago, their message of "peace" was a sham when they said nothing when their fans threw a bottle at the face of the lead singer of Crowded House. And while they put down capitalism, they were charging $30 or $40 for a T-shirt that cost a buck or two to make. "Do as I say, not as I do."

If you want authenticity in music, see Neil Young and John Mellencamp. As far a younger bands go, Radiohead and Michael Ubaldini are the real deal.

I miss Frank Zappa...............

Funny how right next to this article of Geldof's unhappiness with lack of social commentary in web music, there is a ad for Josh Grobin. Now there's a real hero, right?

How about Kings of Leon? They whine a lot, but they only seem to whine about their love life.

How about hip hop? Started out as brilliant social criticism. Now? Not so much, though some of the richest people ever in entertainment are part of it.

Thank God for Bob Dylan. Oh, wait a minute, it's too hard to understand him now that he mumbles so much and did he ever remove that rental outhouse for the help on his Malibu property that was stinking up the who area?

I know rock music is totally hip and there are hot bands out there that are politically relevant in this new gilded age, just can't think of them offhand.

Guess I'll keep listening to Rena Jones, Field Rotation, Secede, and Welder on last.fm. Going to rock concerts uses a lot of petroleum anyway and we're trying to conserve, right?

and he would be right~!

He's right. When Sting complains about how bad pop music is, you know it's bad. The problem with rap is that it has embraced corporate fashion labels.

What an arrogant git. After his inconsequential musical contributions 30-some-odd years ago, he has a lot of nerve criticizing other musicians now. His ignorance of current-day meaningful music is his own fault, not the web's. He could begin to rectify it by going to Neil Young's website, which has been accepting submissions of topical/protest songs for the last five years and currently has 3382 of them posted for the listening at:

All you dern kids, get off my lawn!

Citing rap as the global lingua franca is NOT a good thing! Rap is extremely misogynistic, it promotes criminality and crass consumerism. Further it degrades the beauty of the English language. We have such a rich heritage of great music in America and there is the vast genius of classical music. Teach kids that music.

MAn who cares about all these old people? I never even heard of Bob Geldof till he had everyone sing "we are the world", the biggest piece of self serving, feel good, pretending-to-save-the-children gimmick ever foisted on music.

Everyone kissed his butt for a few weeks and then boom, back to obscurity. Except now he has a castle or something, Sir Bobin of Nottingham.

Somewhere there's a Nigerian with a ball cap that says "Bob Geldof saved the world, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

Blah blah, go take a nap, grandpa, I just want to download some crisp tunes on my iphone, and when i get tired of those, get some more. Music isn't going to save the trees.

Learn how to use the web, Bob. There is plenty of protest music out there. It just might not be in english. For example, People were writing genre-bending protest songs in tahrir square, they became hits. The fact that he didn't see it in Billboard or Variety doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Bob Geldof is a great musician but I gotta disagree with him on this one. The web is like a beach with musical diamonds buried under the sand. There may be more sand than diamonds but there's still a lot of fantastic music on the web; lots of talented independent artists with great songs & great voices and variety. I invite all the good readers (and wise staff writers) of The Los Angeles Times to visit my myspace profile and listen to "She's My Girl Tonight" & "European Psycho". (Want more proof that there's great music on the web? Well, Bob Geldof's music is still on the web, right?)
Cheers from Canada,
David Rubin

I just wanted to chime in in an effort to interject that "Rap" is not "Hip Hop." Don't slam genres of music that you obviously know nothing about. It isn't my favorite genre, but I can appreciate some Hip Hop artists' relevance and message. I even have some favorites in the genre, but it's not for everyone. Yes, some Rap is mysogynistic and lacks a real message or creativity, but on the other hand, some of it comes from a place of inequality, poverty, and anger. Hip Hop has Rap in it, but Rap is not Hip Hop. By talking about it in a sweeping generalization, you show ignorance.

PS - there's no such thing as "Gangsta Hip Hop." It's "Gangsta Rap."

Geldof's heart may be in the right place but he doesn't know everything.
One thing I think is true is that people are really craving a wave of good,new meaningful music. Where is it?


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