SXSW: noise with intent, Bob Geldof's 2011 keynote

>> Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm not sure if there's any point in blogging a speech in which the speaker talks about bloggers being a pain in the ass, but what the hell. Bob Geldof gave an excellent, if rambling speech for his keynote address at SXSW. But here we are.

Geldof came onstage at noon and spoke for an hour; he spoke of his childhood and the power of music, and how tired America seems to be (and how the world needs us not to be), and he issued a challenge to the music folks in the audience to be relevant and vital.

He began by telling the crowd that he was originally planning on talking about the death of passion; then he said that this was something he realized music people had been talking round and around about forever already. But I have to say this was a little funny, too: he talked about trying his spiel out on friends and colleagues last night and then driving to his hotel and hearing all these people playing on street corners and in the bars and pubs and cafés; one might have expected Geldof to concede that passion must not be dead, then, but that isn't where he went with it.

Which I suppose was good: first, because a keynote speech crowd at SXSW is self-selecting for people who are passionate about music, and good luck telling them they're not; second--well, maybe this it's still the first point, too--because it's hard to look around this place and say that passion has been sucked out of music completely. Whether our not you like what someone is doing here, there's little room to doubt that it's being done with love.

But relevance: if Geldof had a theme, it may have been the transformative power of rock and roll. Which it's hardly an original sentiment, but when you're hearing it from a guy who spent his childhood in crippling Irish poverty, became a somewhat well-known rock singer and then a very-well-known activist (with a brief detour into acting by way of a well-known rock-and-roll movie), all in the context of rock-and-roll--well, it's undeniably a personal sentiment, and he's entitled to it and it's an honor to heart him relate it. And Geldof still has a way with words: "Rock and roll was the racket of democracy," he said at one point, and if that's not one of the most quotable things you'll hear this week, fuck off.

It's a line that has the virtue of being true, of course. Whether you're talking about rock as the battle cry of poor American kids in the 1950s or the protest music of American kids in the 1960s or the sound of revolt from young British punks in the 1970s or Soviet kids smuggling Beatles cassettes all through these eras, rock was the sound for disenfranchised people trying to be heard. There are idiots who will talk about how music shouldn't be political--usually they say this when music they want to like disagrees with them--but art is necessarily a political act. And while there's nothing inherently wrong in merely being entertaining (the muses know I hope there isn't, because truthfully I'm more interested in writing an entertaining story than oo, arting, myself), entertainment isn't art, however artfully it might be made.

This was the good part of Geldof's keynote. A challenge to people to not just make noise, but to make meaningful noise is well-taken; I might even go back to what I just said a paragraph ago and say that even an entertainment ought to be meaningful, ought to be affecting. While Geldof, I think, is understandably focused on the political, part of his keynote focused on the way "the boys and girls with guitars" were about opening up alternative universes, suggesting possibility where it hadn't been before.

All well and good. I'll try to be more significant, myself. Even if I am just one of those pain-in-the-ass bloggers.

Here is where Geldof's keynote hit a mixture of good and bad, with, perhaps, some inconsistency mucked in. A recurring phrase--he used it at least twice, and I don't blame him, I like it too--was, "The politics of more don't work." He first used it in the context of Reaganism/Thatcherism (and a related shot at some bands he didn't think had much point beyond making it big and getting stuff), and subsequently in the context of poking at the media glut technology has created. "Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but no one's got anything to say," he said, which has the fault of being somewhat true, unfortunately. Anyone can download the tools to make a catchy, professional sounding tune; or, as he expounded upon and expanded the point, express their opinions online.

Okay, so he isn't wrong. But here's the problem: at this point, Geldof tended to bemoan the lack of filters. Setting aside the whole "get off my yard" quality of this line, the fact is that filters, for better or worse, are antidemocratic. Okay, so let's clarify something else: sometimes democracy is a bad thing (sidenote: that's why America's founders were opposed to it, and created a democratic republic). But if you're going to rave about the democratic and empowering nature of music (or whatever), at least pause to observe the contradiction in then bemoaning the loss of power of antidemocratic institutions or accept that a consequence of democratization its that there will inevitably be an increase of noise-to-signal.

Indeed, one can't help observing that a big part of the punk/DIY ethic that spawned The Boomtown Rats was the idea that anybody could play guitar, anybody could be in a band. The only barrier to entry was acquiring an instrument, and many acts weren't terribly scrupulous about how they went about that (The Sex Pistols, for instance, swiped their first set of gear from the back of a David Bowie show). Geldof himself spoke today about going to a pub as a kid, seeing two friends playing a piano and a
guitar who asked him if he wanted to be in a band, and so he's was in a band; well, he could have been any village idiot babbling in the corner of the pub (as Geldof described people on the Internet today)--lucky he was Bob Geldof, I guess.

I suppose the point I'm getting at its that the fact that every idiot gets his say is the price of democracy, and if you can't get over that or insist on having a major problem with it, you don't really like democracy all that much. Gods know, it doesn't mean you can't turn the idiots off: nobody is forcing you to read this blog (I hope).

Someone sort of challenged Geldof at the end of his keynote, when he took questions; I'm not sure what she said exactly, possibly something defensive; she didn't have a microphone. But Geldof responded with, "I really can't answer to bloggers, they're a fucking pain," and then went on a bit with how it was all noise unless it had intent and bloggers aren't rock-and-roll and railed a little about every idiot having a voice. He's entitled to his opinion and maybe he's even right. On the other hand, I don't feel too obligated to stop whatever it is I'm doing here because a sixty-year-old punk rocker has a beef with it; fuck him, y'know?

But it was a pleasure and an honor to hear him go on a bit, anyway.


Nathan Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 10:29:00 PM EDT  

Those sixty year old punk rockers are such pains in the ass.

Tom Friday, March 18, 2011 at 11:29:00 AM EDT  

Blogger doesn't like my cookies, so it ate my nice long, well-crafted comment instead. Have a great time in Texas.

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