Technology fuels popular entertainment. It has visited on the music industry a sea change in sales, marketing, content distribution, packaging and delivery platforms. Most of us realize that digital music has supplanted the now antiquated "go to the music store and buy it" consumer model. The portability of digital music, however, has made musicians more culturally powerful than ever before – even as it threatens to impoverish them, at least relatively so, because fewer and fewer people are buying albums. Even the word "album" is itself vestigial, in an industry that delivers ones and zeroes across the ether of cyberspace far more often than it presses or burns tracks into recording media.
A popular artist is visible everywhere and at any moment in a world so permeated by the technology of music delivery and storage. Your iPod, Zune, or other MP3 player is only one of many such devices and venues. A great deal of music is available for free online through sites like Aimini, and even more is avaiable – if on questionable legal grounds – through other portals. Your teenager can listen to practically any band he or she wishes on MySpace, while adding those artists' songs to his or her profile page. The mobile phone you or your kids carry has, for several years now, been a music player, and your children are using more technology than ever before.
The cumulative effect of this cultural saturation is to turn certain musicians, performers and celebrities (categories that overlap but which are by no means synonymous) into virtual demigods. Laura Ingraham commented on this phenomenon in "Shut Up and Sing," a book concerning "How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the U.N. are Subverting America." While many of today's fast-tracked, instantly manufactured performing icons (such as those churned out by the "American Idol" process) use their prefabricated and predictably short-lived bully pulpits to start preaching on pet political issues – Adam Lambert's "Hey! Look at me! I'm Gay! Gay, gay, gay, GAY!" histrionics come to mind – those musicians whose success predates this injection-molded musical trend are the real pseudo-deities. It is they who enjoy real socio-political influence thanks to their celebrity, and it is they who run their mouths and embarrass themselves and their nations.
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Never was this better illustrated than in the case of U2's "Bono," a man whom Don Hazen thinks might be "the most popular man in the world." Hazen breathlessly praises "worldwide personality brand Bono," whose "immense platform to highlight social justice issues" rivals the authority wielded by the pope, in Hazen's mind. "So, absent any other competitive nominees," Hazen huffs, "I have to conclude that Bono and his three U2 cohorts sit at the pinnacle of global visibility and popularity." This poor man, smitten as he is by adoration for Bono and U2, goes on to describe a "moving" portion of a U2 concert at the Rose Bowl (he describes his front-row seats as "a real privilege" and says he is humbled by having had the opportunity) in which "a gaggle of Amnesty International volunteers came onto the stage in a long processional, each holding a mask of ... the long-imprisoned leader of Burma. The procession was accompanied by a stirring video and exhortations from Bono himself." It's hard to picture a devoted Catholic describing an audience with the pope in any more fervent, awestruck tones.
Bono, whose real name is Paul Hewson, has long traded on his fame as U2's front man. He's met with world leaders (who are apparently obliged to listen to his plaintive mewlings because, well, he's Bono) to demand everything from forgiveness for debt and more money for AIDS research to more financial handouts for Third World "development assistance," and "fair trade," (the latter a euphemism for dropping various inconvenient trade regulations with nations like Africa). Through it all, Mr. Hewson has presented himself as an icon of egalitarianism and charity (well, charity defined as generosity with other people's earnings).
Recently, however, writing in the New York Times, Bono drew international ire by praising Communist China's Internet restrictions, which he seems to think are a worthwhile effort to combat music piracy. Bono, like many deified celebrities touting social justice, gets a little nervous when the masses trembling in his presence do so without paying the price of admission. Where pirating his band's music is concerned, Bono thinks China's despotic and often arbitrary censorship of the Internet is a fine idea. He asserts that "rich" Internet Service Providers are "reverse Robin Hoods," their "swollen profits" coming at the expense of the poor artists whose pirated content presumably has filled these robber barons' coffers.
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The irony is that even while Mr. Hewson was calling China's efforts to suppress online dissent "ignoble," he was implying that such an effort was feasible provided it targeted the right kind of dissent – in this case, dissent that takes money from his wallet. You heard me right. A man whose band made its name writing whiny songs about human rights is now suggesting a totalitarian Communist regime just might have the right idea where policing the Internet is concerned.
Nirvana's bassist has defended what is being mischaracterized as Bono's "anti-piracy stance," but the damage is done. Paul Hewson's dedication to social justice, to the redistribution of wealth to the poor from those he sneeringly characterizes as "rich," stops just short of his own bank account. Bono is, like all his hand-wringing, celebrity activist ilk, simply a hypocrite who wants to take what you have earned in order to give it those he considers more deserving.
As long as none of that money comes at his expense, Paul Hewson is happy to meet with the world's political leaders to list his demands. It seems, however, that "social justice" is only just when it concerns issues that don't benefit Bono. If totalitarian control of the Internet is what it takes to prevent piracy of his music, U2's front man is happy to stand the world's music consumers against the figurative wall of Communist China's firing squads.