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

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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