Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Indie Bono-ism

Yesterday, I was catching up on current affairs & cultural chatter over my morning coffee when I saw this:
Yeasayer has committed to join the Polyphonic Spree on a trip to Gulu, Uganda later this year, where the bands will learn about the effects of the Ugandan civil war and perform live in various locations.
Ah, Yeasayer - the band with the hardest-working publicist in indie-rock, proof that in the post-Pitchfork paradigm, a high profile guarantees neither consensus nor support. Why exactly is this quintet of bourgeois-bohemian Brooklynites traveling to eastern Africa? Here's the story: Invisible Children is a nonprofit group that rehabilitates ex-child soldiers from Uganda's civil war; they've teamed with French music blog La Blogotheque to bring occidental indie-rock bands to Uganda to see firsthand what horror Joseph Kony hath wrought and, y'know, play a few tunes. La Blogotheque will film the cross-cultural encounters for a DVD which will be sold to benefit Invisible Children.

Oh, but to pull this off, they need fans of the bands to donate $20,000 towards the endeavour. Kind-hearted consumers can donate their ducats via the Kickstarter website, a "funding platform" whose investors include Pitchfork publisher Chris Kaskie.

This whole thing stinks to high heaven.

For starters, neither Yeasayer nor the Polyphonic Spree is a band that sells hundreds of thousands of records, let alone millions. If Invisible Children wants the M.O.R.-indie audience's discretionary cash, why not recruit acts with a wider fan base? Are Vampire Weekend unable to rearrange their touring schedule? Do the Arcade Fire not give a fuck about the Ugandan civil war? I seriously doubt that.

Secondly, the loop of participants is far too closed for this to be anything other than graft. Bands routinely hyped by a prominent music website get a free trip to Africa, while the publisher of said website gets his pockets lined by donations by the bands' fans - who are expected then to pay again for an entertainment commodity wherein the globetrotting bards will learn valuable "life lessons" from poor, beleaguered brown people. And Pitchfork seems to think the magic words "full disclosure" mitigate the flagrancy of this conflict of interest.

Amidst all this backscratching, it's expected that some money will wend its way towards the nonprofit, but this is going around your ass to reach your elbow. Rather than raise twenty grand to fly a bunch of mediocre musicians to Gulu, couldn't that cash be spent on, I dunno, a school? A mobile clinic? A skills-training program?

After all, why assume concerned consumers will only donate to Invisible Children after watching a bunch of middle-class musos wander awkwardly around Africa, muttering platitudes about what great perspective it lends them (before jetting back to the warm bosom of the developed world)? Condescending juxtapositions of celebrity Caucasians cuddling third-world orphans aren't necessary to appeal to people's sense of charity. Not On Our Watch just donated over $1 million towards the Haiti relief effort, and no one had to watch some damned documentary of Brad Pitt or Matt Damon gawking at bloody rubble in Port-Au-Prince.

Though I'm not the first incensed by this debacle, no one is questioning the nobility or value of Invisible Children's mission; I'd encourage you at the very least to check out their website, if not donate directly to their cause. What's disgusting is not only how integrated into the machinery of capital so-called "indie" music has become ("as in Lady Gaga is Brokencyde is Pavement reunion"), but that the musicians see nothing wrong with this and expect their fans to empty their pockets accordingly. By turning featherweight "ethical" gestures into commodities - like hybrid cars or "Live in Uganda" DVDs - capitalism not only keeps everyone playing only by its rules, it tacitly absolves everyone's guilt about playing only by its rules. The expected/accepted display of rockstar ostentation has shifted from trashing hotel rooms in a narcotised rage, to flying half a world away to be photographed messianically embracing victims of some fresh disaster. As Jessica Hopper put it recently, "is 'I can't afford to go on my trip to Africa' any different than 'I can't afford this special cocaine I'd like more of'? Not really."

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