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University essay written in 2004, for a Media Studies paper.   Graded A+.

Popular Music & Social Change:

Live Aid / Band Aid

Several times over the last century, movements have developed to try and bring about social change.   Popular music played a significant role in some of these movements, and this can be seen clearly in the 1960s and 1970s, with the Civil Rights, and Anti-War movements in the United States of America.   In more recent times, there was Band Aid and Live Aid, where a section of the popular music industry tried to affect a change within the political and social landscape of the 1980s.

The actual role of popular music in these movements, and whether this role manages to achieve any substantial change is an issue that should be discussed in depth.   But, for the purposes of this essay one example will be looked at closely to attempt to show whether popular music was successful in bringing about social change.

Late in 1984, Irish pop-singer, Bob Geldof caught a news story on television that shocked him into doing something to help out with the plight of the starving millions in Ethiopia.[1]   Geldof was desperate to do something to help, and after contacting fellow pop-singer, Midge Ure, the two of them went to work bringing together a mega-band, to perform a charity song, "Do They Know it's Christmas".[2]   The single was released on December 15th, in 1984, with a campaign to bring the Ethiopian’s suffering to the public’s attention, and get them buying the record.   Geldof promised that every penny raised by Band Aid would get to the starving, unlike many relief agencies who spent a great deal of the donations on administration and other overheads.

The name Band Aid was decided upon for its double meaning.   It was a band of singers and musicians joining together, and also it was “a sticking plaster on a gaping wound and doesn’t address the full extent of the problem of world famine”.[3]   The single reached the number one spot in the UK over the Christmas season.   It was Band Aid that inspired a group of musicians in the United States to come together in 1985, and record "We Are the World" to contribute to the famine relief in Ethiopia.[4] [5]   And following the success of Band Aid, Geldof decided to organise the charity concert, Live Aid.

Live Aid was held jointly at Wembley Stadium, in London, and JFK Stadium, in Philidelphia, on the 13th July 1985.[6]   There were other performances held in smaller venues as well.   The concert was televised around the world live, using a satellite link-up to capture the performances on each side of the Atlantic.   In today’s satellite television era this would have been easier, but in the early years of the technology it was an amazing accomplishment.[7]

But, Bob Geldof’s plan from the outset was short term, he stated clearly he did not want Band Aid / Live Aid to turn into “an institution”.[8]   The campaign ran for a total of two years; in the beginning Geldof was a minor pop star who managed to persuade his better known colleagues to come together to record the charity record Band Aid, to raise money for the famine relief in Ethiopia.[9]  

He ended by organising the most spectacular global pop show and fundraising event in history, and then touring the world, supervising aid programmes and lecturing world leaders.   He was largely responsible for $140 million worth of aid contributions and for the progressive way in which much of that money was spent.   And at the end of that, he tried to go back to being a pop star, with only limited success.[10]

The concert raised a great deal of money in a short space of time, but it was short term, and short lasting.   It didn’t really alter the politics that led to the severe famine.   At the same time as outlining that his campaign was short term, Geldof also “insisted that his campaign was humanitarian and not political, because ‘famine is above politics’.”[11]   This seems a very naïve statement since the very root of famine is often completely political.   While climate is a huge factor in the production of crops for food, the other major factor is politics.  

There are cases of Western countries destroying surplus supplies of crops, such as wheat, so as not to adversely affect the world markets.   Instead the surplus could be given to those suffering from lack of food in Africa, or within their own shores.   Politicians, and other Powers that be in the African countries, are sometimes guilty of using the majority of their country’s budget on military spending.   This also leads to civil wars within the boarders which are often to blame for large portions of the population being cut off from the resources to help feed themselves.   All these factors, and many more, are politically motivated, and lead to extreme famines, then and now.

Yes, Geldof did travel around the world lecturing world leaders, but it was all short term, and that fact that he was talking with political leaders implies he also realised the role of politics in famine.   At the end of this he went back to his life, and the politicians were free to go back to their ways.   Did he, or the music, really achieve anything?

In his book, Stand Up and Be Counted, musician David Crosby talks about his time involved in the Anti-War movement of the 60s and 70s.[12]   While this is a totally different movement, an issue he raised is worth mentioning in conjunction with the famine appeal in the 80s.

When we first started having big demonstrations against the war we thought we’d stop it pretty quickly.   But we greatly underestimated this thing called social inertia.   Society has inertia just like a falling body.   And it took us ten years instead of the two or three we initially thought it would take.

This applies to the famine appeal, and in fact the starving millions around the world; it was not something that could be changed over night.

At the end of his stint as a “musical conscience to the world”, Geldof talked of having built up “a ‘constituency’ of those millions who watched the fund-raising concerts on television, ran in Sport Aid, and supported his ideas”.[13]   He is said to have felt he had a responsibility to ‘[use] this constituency to generate political change’.   Yet, it seemed as if he just turned away from his aid work, and returned to being just a singer.

There is a concept applied to big charity events, such as Live Aid, ‘event psychosis’.[14]   “The idea that one major event will appear to solve a particular problem so that the public feel they don’t have to worry about it again, and can move on to worry about something else”.   This idea extends to the audience of such an event, when the big event is over; when their contribution (donation) has been made it seems to many that the job is done; they have done their part.   This ‘event psychosis’ is exacerbated by Geldof’s return to his normal life; a lot of his ‘constituency’ could be lead to believe that the problem has gone away.

The Unoffical Live Aid Website has made the statement about what came out of the event: “…more than money, Geldof had changed the world perception about Africa”.[15]   It is because of the previous issues raised here that this statement seems flawed.   If there was any change of perception it was a short lived societal change, and did not have any far-reaching results.   In some ways this can be seen clearly in the need for a similar campaign, Band Aid II, when yet another extreme famine hit Ethiopia in 1989.[16]   Admittedly this was on a much smaller scale, but it did make the number one spot in the UK.  

At the end of all these campaigns, there is still a large proportion of the world out there that is starving.   Yes, this event did bring the suffering to the Western world’s attention, but only for that short time.   Now, as before the campaigns, it is the relief agencies out there that really make the difference, but they do not have the advantage of the press coverage a pop singer can capture.

“Music might intersect with important social practices, at times it might even talk about social change.   But it was also part of an industry organised to sell commercial leisure, a functioning part of life in a capitalist country, and a reflection of all the ideological contradictions of the world surrounding it”.[17]   Popular music is in a position to talk about the world, and point out aspects that the average person may not reflect on normally.   And with charity events and records, popular music is able to raise, sometimes large, amounts of money, but any lasting change has to come over time, and so an event such as Live Aid, or the whole Band Aid campaign, was not well placed to bring about those changes in society.

Notes:

[1] The Unofficial Live Aid Website.   What Was Live Aid?    (Subsequent references to this text included)

[2] Bob Geldof, Midge Ure.   Band Aid - Do They Know It’s Christmas.   Mercury FEED 1, 1984.    (Subsequent references to this text included)

[3] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.   Band Aid (band).   (Subsequent references to this text included)

[4] Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie.   We Are The World.   1985.

[5] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.   Band Aid (band).

[6] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.   Live Aid.   (Subsequent references to this text included)

[7] The Unofficial Live Aid Site. What Was Live Aid? (Subsequent references to this text)

[8] Robin Denselow.   When the Music’s Over.   London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990, pg.244.   (Subsequent references to this text included)

[9] These two years is not including the brief resurgence with Band Aid II in 1989, in which Geldof was notable by his absence.

[10] Robin Denselow.   When the Music’s Over.   London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990, pg.244.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Crosby, D, & Bender, D.   ‘The Anti-War Movement: And it’s One, Two, Three… What are we fighting for?’   MDIA 305 Social History of Popular Music, pg.258.   (Subsequent references to this text included).

[13] Robin Denselow.   When the Music’s Over.   London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990, pg.245.   (Subsequent references to this text included)

[14] Ibid.   Pg.234.   (Subsequent references to this text included)

[15] The Unofficial Live Aid Site.   What Was Live Aid?   (Subsequent references to this text included)

[16] Bob Geldof, Midge Ure.   Band Aid II - Do They Know It’s Christmas.   PWL/Polydor FEED 2, 1989.

[17] G. Lipsitz.   ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain? – Youth Culture, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Social Crises’   MDIA 305 Social History of Popular Music, pg.230.   (Subsequent references to this text included).

 

Bibliography:

Denselow, Robin.   When the Music’s Over: The Story of Political Pop.   London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990.

MDIA 305 Reader.   A Social History of Popular Music.   Wellington: VUW, School of English, Film and Theatre, 2004.

 

Websites:

‘Band Aid’.   Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Band_Aid_(band)>   (Version current at 30th April 2004)

 

‘Live Aid’.   Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Live_Aid>    (Version current at 28th April 2004)

 

‘What Was Live Aid?’   The Unofficial Live Aid Site.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://www.live-aid.info>   (Version current at 30th April 2004)

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