Sunday, July 08, 2007

TV: Global Boring

NBC decided to broadcast three hours of Live Earth Saturday. As opposed to the usual Dead One? We were going to skip the musical wax works, we actually weren't even aware it was airing. Everyone knows not to bore us with pseudo activism. At least we thought that was the case. Two calls, out of many, persuaded us. So Al Snore's back and NBC had him. Three hours of remedial television dedicated to global warming but playing out like global boring taught audiences at least two things.

First, those School House Rock skits are still highly under-rated. Hearing Whoopi Goldberg and William Shatner do factoids and helpful bits in voice overs proved how hard it was to pull off School House Rock. The second thing that the audiences learned was that NBC isn't, after all, afraid to broadcast the F-word. FCC be damned, apparently.

There were other bits of news, for instance, Bon Jovi announced their retirement in a faux country song, "Farewell to mediocrity." Without mediocrity, what does the one time hair-pop band have? Besides, of course, Heather Locklear's pancake make up that Richie Sambora apparently got custody of and is intent upon wearing. We called an actress who was once involved in JBJ and she explained the desperation factor that has destroyed the (newly countrified) band. Jon, even as a janitor, never knew who he was. He still doesn't. When you make someone like that the band leader, there's always going to be trouble. Step away from the stage slowly, no sudden movements.

Be careful, also, when you worship at the feet of Al Gore -- there will be trouble. Of course, to get there, you'll have to kick Melissa Etheridge out of the way. As the cameras began to move in, one of us said, "Tom Petty looks awful." The other said, "I just saw Petty last month, that's not him." It was Melissa. Last week, Rebecca came up with the bit about Etheridge's career being over and we disagreed with that but agreed it was possible and, besides, it was funny. Well Rebecca built her fortune in the public relations business. We should have listened. Obviously NBC did. Which is why Melissa's face-time was reduced to this: "Now I want to introduce to you my hero and my friend" Al Gore!!!! No song broadcast from Etheridge, despite Al thanking her for that "amazing and brilliant wake up call."

A Melissa Etheridge story. Many years ago, when David Geffen still owned Geffen Records, there was a disgusting excuse for man-flesh who creeped everyone out. He was a sexist pig, not all that uncommon in that or any period of the music industry, and when he finally was shown the door, there were no tears. One of us (C.I.) bumped into him shortly after and there was an awkward moment before he finally said he was really into this new act: Melissa Etheridge. Since he reduced all women to the T&A scale this was surprising. Well, he explained, it was different with Melissa, looks didn't matter because she was a lesbian. Point?

Melissa Etheridge was never in the closet in the industry and the bulk of her fan base were also in on her "little secret" long before she finally got the guts to say "Yes I Am" well over a decade ago. Note, not, "I am." She merely confirmed what was well known. Five years after she became a name so, possibly, in 2008, she may find the courage to publicly call out the illegal war she opposes. Maybe not. The nonsense of 'bravery' with regards to Melissa is laughable. (And the only one who laughs louder than we do may be k.d.)

What is it, wondered one of the two phone callers who got us to review, this nonsense, about closeted lesbians that attracts them to easy causes? Because, he's right, there are a number of them pimping for Al Gore. We have no idea why. During the Red Scare of the 50s, closeted gays and lesbians in the entertainment world were overwhelmingly apathetic. That might have had to do with the fact that the Communist Party officially frowned on gays and lesbians. Or it may have been because when people are being targeted, those with something else to hide go out of their way to appear 'normal' to the point of bland.

Think of the hilarity involved in Frank McCarthy's life. Mamie and Ike's boy, as well as Truman's, went to Hollywood and became a studio censor -- a field he had a long history in having censored his own sexuality from public knowledge -- though J. Edgar Hoover's knowledge of it reportedly killed military boy McCarthy's ascension to the State Department.

But as our non-moss gathering friend (and he prefers that billing for this column to "rock legend") also wondered, "What is ____'s obsession with making closeted lesbians into stars? He's been doing that for decades. I go down on women too, didn't make ___ [the label] treat me any better." [Note: We cleaned that quote up.]

We were on the phone with him after the half-way point (when we were so ready for the ending) and laughing as Roger Waters, singing for the environment supposedly, performed "Another Brick In the Wall." We don't know if it was the "We don't need no education" line (isn't that more of a John Stossel mantra?) or if it was the fact that Waters looked and grinned (throughout the song) like an aged David Cassidy, but it was hilarious.

Our caller, like most of the name acts with enduring legacies, elected to sit out the Al Gore celebration. That's due to a number of reasons including the fact that Al Gore's pro-nuclear and coal energy. The crowd that stood up to say No Nukes isn't going to show up for any politician selling nuclear energy. NBC will, of course. The network worked in multiple shout outs to their own light bulb products. But no rock legends were going to sully their reputations by schilling for Al Gore.

Which is why the whole thing played out like a really bad (read White bread) TV music special from the 60s. For those who never saw them (or forgot them), you'd get your generic, middle of the road host (think Dinah Shore) with a group of "names" that had no street heat. For us, Live Earth was The Tennesse Ernie Ford Special with Danny Thomas, The Dillards, Andy Griffith and Diana Ross & the Supremes. That special aired in 1967 and all the acts were tired by 1965 if not sooner.

Now there are other reasons the names stayed away. There is, after all, the Tipper Gore issue. For those too young to remember, power drummer Tipper co-launched the witch hunt of the music industry in the eighties which led to stickering and censorship. You don't come back from that. No matter how hard you try, you don't come back. Which is why, in the early years of Bill Clinton's presidency, the big gossip in the music industry wasn't whom Clinton might be sleeping with but how closely Tipper was watching "E" and making sure "E"'s claim to fame remained picking out a tie for one of Gore's debates. You can't attack an industry and not suffer fall out. And just because your own life goes so pathetic doesn't mean you're forgiven. Not when your wife confesses to severe depression, not when you prove how spineless you are by refusing to fight for a presidency you won and not when your 24-year-old son barrels through the armpit of California, at 100 miles per hour, baked on pot and with enough pharmaceuticals to open a mobile CVS.

There really is no comeback but Al Gore likes to pretend otherwise. He trots out that annoying voice (which is actually a great deal like Dr. Phil's) and expects to ride the sympathy factor. Ann Curry, in a sit down interview with Gore, tried repeatedly to get an answer from him ("yes or no") as to whether he was planning to run for president in 2008? He refused to give an answer ("yes or no") and stammered and hammered on in the manner that irritated so many during the 2000 campaign.

So there was more than a little bit of karmic justice when, in a segment from Tokyo, Linkin Park was first bleeped in "Bleed It Out" but went on to clearly rap, "F**k this hurts, I won't lie. Doesn't matter how hard I try." The f-word wasn't bleeped. Oh, Tipper, did you cry? What about the children? What about the children!!!!

Al Gore explained (repeatedly -- as always with Al, never say it just once when you can instead belabor the point) that "the largest global audience" ("in all of history") was watching Live Earth. Which means a number of children were. Can Tipper help us out with what parental warning we should slap on the show for the Linkin Park bit?

Ann Curry also sat down with Sting and Trudie and this was instructive. Trudie, in response to a generic question about the environmental problems in Ecuador, began discussing the rates of cancer and noted that the problems were caused by Chevron dumping "18 billion gallons of toxic waste." Curry, who slouched and slumped throughout the broadcast in a silky number, immediately had to insist, "You know Chevron says the Ecuadorian oil company is actually responsible." After that childish nah-nah-nah moment, Curry then quickly switched the topic to 'personal stories.' She wanted to hear personal stories.

And that's really why this three hours of broadcast crap should have come with a sticker warning (and why so many names boycotted it). This isn't about responsibility, this is about consumerism. Two other sit downs (one with 'consumer reporter' Ann Thompson, the other with Mike Bloomberg) allowed NBC/G.E. to promote G.E. light bulbs. But it was on display throughout the broadcast. The environment can be saved if you -- and apparently only you -- will do your part. Rosario Dawson, introducing Kanye West, actually managed to break from that script (and the script was enforced according to two people who participated in Live Earth) noting, "If we all vote with our pocket books and vote with our ballots" we could solve the problem. For that minor straying from the script, Dawson was bad mouthed. The ones who deserve to be bad mouthed are all the dead and dying celebrities that continually promoted the environmental problems as something to be fixed by just stocking your homes more wisely.

It also needs to be noted that every commercial break ended with a plea for you to text (on a cell phone) a message. Where do the cell phones end up and what is necessary for their manufacture? Those are environmental issues but the feel-good nonsense wasn't interested in that. By texting words like "home" and "share" you could "Do your part and answer the call and," most important apparently, "you may get your name on TV." "Join others around the world," the same annoying segment noted but we didn't see "others around the world" listed in the crawl during the musical performances. We saw a lot of California, a lot of Florida, some Texas, some New Jersey, Puerto Rico (which is a US territory) and, once, Dublin. Those segments (which again, were broadcast after every commercial break though they weren't supposed to be, themselves, commercials) always ended by noting, "Standard message rates apply."

Big Business was all on board with this special. It's the perfect message for them: If everyone would just buy (more expensive) light bulbs, we could end environmental pollution!

We believe in global warming and believe the cause is man-made; however, we're not so stupid to believe that the toxic air so many of us now breathe came about due to individuals.

The special repeatedly broadcast it was up to you to fix the problems that you have caused but "you" was a funny sort of plural that never included Big Business. (Needless to say, the words "Hudson River" were never mentioned on a G.E. aired special.) While individuals can make a difference with the choices they make, it's also true that until Big Business (and, no, Bloomberg, the taxi cab industry in NYC is not Big Business) is forced to stop polluting, individuals taking actions in their own homes are merely slowing global warming, they are not preventing it. And the special, the alleged environmental special, had no time to address that. (Again, Trudie raised that very real issue and was shut down by Ann Curry and told to stick to 'personal stories.')

So what were the performances like? It's interesting to think of Live Aid because that was twenty-two years ago. Live Aid had its faults including the under-representation of people of color. The promoters boasted, in the week before the concert, that Teddy Pendergrass had been 'added' to the line up. What they failed to note was that no time had been added for him. Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford -- Ashford & Simpson -- brought him on as their guest and shared their allotted time with him. That was also a segment that ABC didn't choose to air in their primetime coverage. (MTV aired the entire thing. Many UHF stations carried it throughout the day.) Tina Turner (riding her amazing comeback) was a guest of Mick Jagger's for his solo spot. Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin were guests of Hall & Oates during Darrell Hall and John Oates' spot. Last night, NBC's selected bits deemed worth airing were no better than the record ABC sat twenty-two years ago.

While people of color were in short supply, you saw plenty of boobs. In fact, in the NJ broadcasts, you saw breasts so often that you'd be forgiven for wondering if a hungry two-month old baby was working the cameras. Apparently the subtext was that braless women, by bouncing up and down in stadiums, will cool the earth and halt global warming. Someone should tell them that because they looked to be short on clues. It takes a lot of dumb to be grinning as you lip synch the phrase "Waiting for the world to change" or as you jump and down, grinning like an idiot, while you mouth the words "Blood in the water."

The latter is from the Dave Matthews Band's "Don't Drink The Water." It's not an "up" song, it's a song that's supposed to be about the destruction of the land and Native American culture at the hands of empire. Throughout the special, as various celebs kept going on about how much awareness was being raised, we flashed back on the two grinning women mouthing lyrics to that song and decided that even with regards to awareness the concert had failed. In fairness to the big breasted but small brained duo, it needs to be noted that the audience was grinning throughout the song (and swaying) as if they were filming a Pepsodent commercial. Even Dave Matthews himself started to grin while singing this song about the rape of the land and the destruction of a people. He caught himself, stared down at the stage for a bit as he composed himself, and then returned to performing it solemn faced.

For all the chubby chasers out there, Dave Matthews didn't appear to be wearing underwear. That wasn't noticed in a tight close up because men were always in wide shots (such as John Mayer, Kanye West, etc.) or in a tight close up of the face. The camera work was so consistently bad in NY*, in fact, that we wondered if those filming grasped just how popular Flea is? (A lot more popular and a lot more interesting than the ever aging Anthony wearing a shift-sheet-caftan to hide the weight gain.) The cameras were, however, all over Shakira whose biggest misfortune was in performing in a venue with bad sound (Hamburg). Even with the sound going in and out, Shakira managed to prove she was this century's Charo. Before she even began singing "Hips Don't Lie," she'd already lifted her blouse to the cheers from the crowd (it wouldn't be the last time she'd do that). She squealed "Ewww!" a lot while thrusting her chest and squinching up her face. Apparently, that's her version of "Coochie-coochie-coo!" She was followed around on stage by a man who repeatedly grabbed at her ass. The really sad thing, when you think about it, is that Shakira's paying the man and paying him to treat her like a piece of meat.

Other bad performances included the Foo Fighters -- which may or may not be redundant but it is certainly not surprising. Dave Grohl, the drummer who never knew his place, dedicated his one (aired) song to Al Gore. The song itself? The same quite-loud-quiet-loud crap he's been churning out for years. As always, Foo Fighters came off like a really lame Nirvana tribute band. Dave, the Horseshoe in Shreveport is calling,

There was also Al Gore before the crowd and Gore is no Hillary Clinton. Where she can energize, he can only lull. He was reciting a seven-point (no, we are not making that up) pledge. (For any wondering, the pledge did not include "Talk to your kids about drugs.") In the midst of an alleged music festival. He was so huge that the audience might not have recognized him and, possibly, that fear may be why he recited a pledge by himself -- rushing through and never giving the audience time to respond.

Kelly Clarkson should have taken Al's lead. Performing one of her many bad rip-offs of No Doubt circa the 90s, Clarkson repeatedly snapped, "Yeah, yeah! Sing it!" Despite holding the mike out to the stadium, no one really did. Did Clarkson know she was supposed to go on? She was dressed as though she stumbled by on her way to Sack and Save and if those (overly) touted American Idol pipes can't get in front of that din of that (bad) music, she needs to step aside. Kanye West needed someone to take him aside and explain that a cap might work in the clubs but, in a stadium, it only hides your face and pisses off the people who've paid to see you.

London and the US were 'important.' They got many segments. (Others got only one, such as Rio which got one segment that ended while the song was still being performed -- Lenny Kravitz and the song was "Let Love Rule.")

To telegraph that it was a world event, they assembled a couple of minutes from various locations that contained several different acts playing. From the clips, it appeared that all the other concerts were far more interesting. In Australia, Jack Johnson effortlessly created the feel Dave Matthews has to work up a heavy sweat just to approximate. That clip ended with Crowded House, still the most melodic male group to come along in years, performing an amazing version of their 80s classic "Don't Dream It's Over" which, pay attention Clarkson, the audience actually sang along with. The other clips? Apparently NBC feels that no one cares about people from countries where English isn't the main language. That would explain the fact that none of the artists (briefly) shown in the Shanghai or Koyto clips were billed. It's a global event! Starring the US! And a few we don't care about enough to even name!

In London, the low was Metallica (which appeared to have borrowed the grinning, high energy performance style of the Go-Gos). The camera mugging was so bad even Duran Duran couldn't take bottom 'honors'. The high was the Black Eyed Peas. Leave it to,, Taboo, and Fergie to show more guts than supposed (middle of the road) artists. There song noted that there are terrorists in the United States (more reality than any one else could muster) and Fergie has vocal power. Even holding the mike out to the audience, you could clearly hear her vocals. (London was not the worst sound -- Hamberg and Rio were -- but it was bad. Fergie overcame it.)

Strangest moment in the entire broadcast? Chris Rock, introducing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, noted, "Every day in Jamaica, a little baby bursts into flames." If you're scratching your head over that (delivered sincerely) remark, so are we.

Which brings us to the reason we watched in the first place. No, not to see Alicia Keys' gut and take part in the is-she-pregnant rumors (she's not). On the phone, an actor we've quoted in these before, told us we had to watch what was then airing, already airing, because Madonna was on. She had told him she thought our last take was "a little funny." Actually, Madge has said a few unprintables about what we wrote and we embrace that and any other sign of life in the otherwise tired persona that currently is Madonna. To others, she's cautioned that we better stay away from her stomping grounds which struck us as cute because (a) we generally don't visit the retirement community in Florida and (b) when you peaked in 1991, you really don't have any stomping grounds to claim.

But the actor assured us that Madonna thought our previous commentary on her was "a little funny" and that she said she'd really worked hard building her performance for Live Earth. When we wondered if his wife knew how closely in contact he (still) was with Madonna, he laughed but had to go.

What the hell, how bad could it be. We turned on the TV.

We gave her credit for wearing all black (especially after the outfit from her last special) but we were puzzled. Not by the limp wrist pose she repeatedly used. (We're sure some Madonna freak will find shades of meaning in that and write many dissertations on it.) It wasn't the fact that her entire act seemed to consist of posing. This is Madonna and she is getting long in the tooth.

What puzzled us was how Jennifer Grey, with her original nose, ever became a sex symbol in the first place? That was who Madonna reminded us of. She has bangs now. And the nose didn't look pretty. Had she, we wondered, finally reached the stage where well maintained would no longer be able to pass for "pretty"?

We enjoyed her vocals -- both the live bits and the pre-recorded ones. She performed "Hung Up," a minor hit in the Madonna canon -- but minor hits are apparently all that's left from the woman who once shook and shocked the world. These days, the little bits of walking around the stage caused her to pant in the mike and, no, not intentionally as in "Burning Up." We especially enjoyed one vocal bit she did on the word "you" when her voice warbled and went round and round the note without ever finding it.

That was when we turned on the broadcast. Anything before that we missed. But we were able to see Madonna again near the end and that was a good thing. She was not like Jennifer Grey at all. She'd changed her clothes, fluffed her hair and, looking at her then, we realized we were wrong. She's Bette Davis. After the slide. Well, she's always changing looks and personas. The hair style is actually the poodle -- which Davis favored in films like Dead Ringers. After we grasped that, we wondered how many realized Madonna's actually older now than Davis was when Warner Brothers washed their hands of her?

Our favorite musical bit in this performance (of "Hey You") was when she, all by herself, sang "Hey you" in a vocal style that can only be described as "curdled." We found it fitting that, at Live Aid, she performed the then unreleased "Love Makes The World Go Round" while, at Live Earth, she performed "Hey You." One festival addressed world concerns, the other tried to push pollution as an individual problem.

Madonna didn't close Live Aid and, sign of the times?, she didn't close Live Earth either. NBC closed their broadcast proper with the Police. "Message in the Bottle" was the song and it went smoothly enough at the beginning. Sting was over-miked resulting in a sort of Sting with the Police type sound but Sting was the only one who ever mattered in the group to begin with and still is. Apparently wanting some sort of jam to go out on, John Mayer and others joined them onstage. Most didn't harm the song. Then Kanye West strode onstage. If, over Sting's singing, you need to hear West chant "S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S." then you might have been happy. If, in the middle of Sting singing the third verse, something inside craved you Kanye shouting "Yeah! Yeah!" over and over, you might have been ecstatic. And we'll assume you then reached climax as Kanye went into "Uh, uh, uh" and tossed out tired lines about waving your hands "like you just don't care."

But for those who really didn't see "Message in the Bottle" as a rap song or a song that needed Kanye yelling over Sting's vocals, take heart. Kanye was present at Live Earth last night. In spirit, if not body, he was also present at Live Aid. As he chanted, "Hey, hey, hey, hey . . ." at one point, we realized he was, in fact, giving a shout out to Live Aid and trying to recreate the magic of the MTV telecast when Martha Quinn thought the audience tuning in wanted to hear her and not the acts on stage.

But even with Kanye West and interviewer Carson Daily trying their best to keep the flame alive for Martha Quinn, there were still too many differences. Live Aid offered memorable moments from Ashford & Simpson and Teddy Pendergrass, Mike Jagger and Tina Turner, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Pretenders, Run DMC, Crosby, Stills and Nash (and C,S,N & Y), Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Sade, Elton John, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and, the US part, was opened by Jack Nicholson and Joan Baez. Live Earth offered up nothing to even rival that. Instead of art, you got a lot art-lite. When an actual artist was performing, as with Lenny Kravitz, the NBC broadcast cut away before the song was over.

But most of all, Live Aid gave viewers a sense that, if everyone pulled together, maybe hunger in Africa could be wiped out. Didn't happen but it gave viewers a sense of purpose. Live Earth didn't leave you with a sense of purpose, it just offered tips, bad entertainment, the f-word on primetime network TV and, most of all, a sense that it was all up to (and the fault of) individuals. Like many an Al Gore campaign event, it left those watching wishing it hadn't played it so damn safe.

*Giants Stadium is in New Jersey; however that staging of the concert was billed as the "New York" performances and you can check any rock press that has filed or does file and you'll see them refer to it as the New York wing of the concert.
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