PHILADELPHIA - It was all so transparent. And it wasn't really the heat that made me nauseous for nearly eight hours. As I took in Saturday's mammoth Live 8 extravaganza on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it quickly occurred to me what this was really all about. The hip-shaking, the pyrotechnics, the heavy security, the flat notes - Live 8, to break it on down, was an unabashed celebration of celebrity and technology.
Oh, from time to time the high-minded purpose of the global event - to "raise awareness" of this week's G8 Summit in Scotland and pressure the leaders to end the devastating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa - was mentioned. But who cared? Most of the acts didn't even bother to sing politically conscious songs. Beyonce - in a too-tight, too-short miniskirt, flanked by "those other two" of Destiny's Child - belted the hit "Girl." Will Smith came out to the theme from Rocky. Jay-Z performed "Big Pimpin'."
Folks starving in Africa? Oh, for real?
From the beginning, it seemed that this was a way for Bob Geldof, the cussing Irish activist and washed-up rock musician behind Saturday's ravenous orgy of celebrity ego trips, to prove that he could stage Live Aid all over again. Twenty years ago, he organized Live Aid in about a month, and he did it much the same way this time around. Live 8 was indeed a success in that an estimated 2 billion people watched it on TV or on the Internet via AOL. The intentions behind the spectacle may have been all good.
But those who observe the pop industry are hip to the game: It's all about "chasing that paper," as Snoop Dogg would say - staying on the radar so that you can sell your product and make that money. The artists who performed at Live 8 may not have been paid. But if they have a new album, single or tour to plug or a profile to raise, they surely don't pass up a chance to be in front of a global audience of 2 billion. And to show just how much the celebrities were appreciated, organizers of the concert - which was free, by the way, and Geldof didn't ask for donations - gave every performer gift bags full of goodies worth about $12,000, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The gifts included $2,000 Gibson guitars and $6,000 Bertolucci watches.
Nothing wrong with a little something to say, "Hey, thanks for coming," especially since none of the artists were paid for their 15 to 20 minutes on stage. But a $3,000 Hugo Boss duffel bag?
"I'm taking a chance being here," said superstar rapper-producer Kanye West. He had a paid engagement at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans later that day. "If I don't show up, I can get sued for a quarter of a million dollars. But I had to be here. I'm more into social issues. I'm not into politics. I'm into people. I know that my people, my African people, are dying. If I can bring awareness to that, that's a good thing."
West, known for his hellish arrogance and conceit, is supposed to release his hotly anticipated CD, Late Registration, later this summer. Surprisingly, he didn't shamelessly plug it. But in the sweltering press tent behind the stage, he explained his intentions for his latest single, "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," which spotlights among other things the ills of the diamond trade in the West African country. He performed that song and two others - "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks" - backed by a 10-piece, all-female string section. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas did the crass plugging on stage ("We're going to do a song off our new record, Monkey Business.") And Will Smith did the inflated ego thing, instructing the crowd to scream "Will's house!" before launching into his latest single, the hollow "Switch."
Uh, Africa? Poverty?
Even if some of the stars didn't have a product to push or an ego to stroke, they certainly weren't going to miss an opportunity to be seen - if not heard. One of the most surreal moments at Live 8 was in the press tent when Anna Nicole Smith showed up. Wearing a pink halter top that barely contained her cantaloupe breasts and skin-tight jeans, she posed and preened for pictures and never uttered a word.
"Why are you here today?" journalists wanted to know. But Smith kept quiet as she turned her behind to a photographer - for a better view, I guess. After about a minute or so of vacant smiles, Smith, who coyly flashed the black pasties she wore under that stripper-like top, was escorted by the waist off the press tent stage.
Thousands of children dying in Africa every day from AIDS? Oh, uh-huh. Whatever.
Some in the sea of an estimated 1 million people that covered the 60 acres on and surrounding the mile-long stretch of Benjamin Franklin parkway had no idea what Live 8 was all about.
"I'm trying to see Destiny's Child, Maroon 5, Jay-Z, and Will Smith," said Zykia Moore, a wishbone-thin, 16-year-old junior at University City High School in Philadelphia. "Plus, it's a nice day. Plus, I want to get into a video because I can dance. Can you get me into a video?" she asked me, seriously. "Uh, no, I can't get you into a music video."
"Oh. You know Jay-Z? I'm trying to get into one of his videos," she said, craning her neck as if the famed rapper was somewhere in the crowd.
Annette Jackson, a 55-year-old nurse who attended Live Aid in '85, stood at a barricade, sweating under a mean sun. It was about 3 in the afternoon, half-way through Live 8, and the closest spot she could get was about a quarter of a mile away from the stage.
"I got off from work and was out here at 6:45 this morning," she said, looking defeated. "I don't like this Live Aid this time. The first one had more white bands, you know. We could roam around like Woodstock. Now, this is just too controlled. Can't see nothing. I don't like this."