AUSTIN, Texas -- A fine new biography of Queen by Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life?, was recently published. The first chapter details the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985, as fine a piece of stadium showmanship as you'll ever see. It inspired me to drop the cash on a used set of Live Aid DVDs, the four-disc set that was finally compiled a few years ago. Watching the whole spectacle over a long weekend while the spouse was away, I finally came to terms with the fact that, sure, Dylan was there, but so were Spandau Ballet and the Style Council (themselves the picture-perfect illustration of style trumping substance in the mid-'80s). It happened when Elvis Costello came onto the stage. He had one song. He didn't pick one of his own, he didn't push the hit, he instead sang "All You Need Is Love." Live Aid is peppered with such moments, when the music itself reminds us of why we're here -- much moreso and certainly more effectively than the marathon concert's occasional news reels about the African famine -- and what we should be talking about.
This is exactly the kind of thing Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof says is lacking in current music -- or, if it's there, at least the democratization of the Internet has prevented him from finding it.
Surprising and inspiring, more optimist than doomsayer, Geldof began Thursday's keynote address at SXSW 2011 with a pleasant ramble but focused his remarks on pop music's history of affecting social change, however indirectly, and the future of that crucial power.
"I don't think the American revolution is over," said the activist-musician. He didn't mean 1776. "The music of the American revolution was not fife and drum. It was rock 'n' roll. It is entirely understandable to anyone in the world. That's why Live Aid worked."
Geldof recalled his youth in "cold, damp, gray" Ireland and the personal (which, once he took action by joining a band, inevitably later became social) revolution that occurred when he first heard rock music. His realization, he says, was, "I can use this thing." He saw the music as a tool to change his own circumstances, and then to have a voice in the world.
But it's the nature of that voice that Geldof focused on. What kind of voice, and through what medium will it come? The Internet isn't enough, he said. "We can talk these things through, which is the limitation of the web," he said, salting his impassioned speech in several places with his distaste for blogs and for the ability of anyone to shout their views unmanaged into cyberspace. An increase in the quantity of voices has drowned out those with quality -- "Everybody's got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say," Geldof said.
No, blog screeds and even Woody Guthrie-esque didacticism are not going to keep the American cultural revolution alive and growing. For music to have any impact, he said, "it must suggest, not state ... It has to be about society. The revisiting of context is crucial. When rock becomes about the height of the platform boots and the size of one's country manor, it's meaningless." He called rock music a "vivid, livid argument with the constituency," adding, "This thing we call content now is about the conversation society has with itself."
The power of shaping ideas still lies in the music, he said, though finding it and experiencing it has grown more difficult without clear arbiters and filters online. "Where are the Ramones of today, the Sex Pistols?" he asked. "They're out there, but will they be found? That's the point."
To the musicians at SXSW, Geldof pleaded: "Say something to me!" He also encouraged them not to be taken in by the illusion of community offered by the Internet and to realize that "a fan club is more powerful than 6,000 [Facebook] friends." Then he started to get angry, exactly in the way he wanted musicians to be. "I don't hear it! I don't hear that rage! I don't hear the disgust in music" -- and this after a laundry list of injustices, including the Wall Street scandals and the new McCarthyism of Rep. Peter King (whose hypocritical former ties to the IRA brought real color to Geldof's cheeks) -- "and I need to! It doesn't have to be literal. Ideas are shaped in music. That's why music is dangerous, and always has been. Rock 'n' roll is the siren cry of individualism acting together."
Individualism acting together. Nice. Sounds like America to me. And the voice of that collective individualism is still desperately needed throughout the world, Geldof said without even citing the examples of current uprisings through Africa and the Middle East. "We still need you. Still the voice of the American revolution must pound on."
Amusing postscript: In the Q&A that followed, one questioner brought up contemporary outspoken punk bands and focused on Chicago's Rise Against, who Geldof seemed familiar with. But their name is too literal, he complained. "I really don't think pop should be that literal," he said. "I suggest that they ... move to transliterating what they're feeling."
That said, it should be interesting to compare the directness of lyrics on Rise Against's new album, "Endgame" when we finally hear Geldof's new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell," this spring.