Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

26 October 2009

What All-Star Covers Taught Me About How Not to Run a Non-Profit Campaign.

I was watching Beds are Burning, a cover for TckTckTck, a climate change awareness campaign. It features Marion Cotillard, Duran Duran, Serena Ryder, and the Black Eyed Peas (which manage to ingratiate themselves in anything involving an all-star lineup), among others.

The production quality is exceptional, and the lineup is cup-runneth-over. But there are multiple moments of wince-worthiness: the flashing names of famous faces, or instances like timestamp 1:48, when a deer primly peers at you through his gasmask while Youssou N'Dour sings his heart out.

It tries too hard. And in the end, the cause that makes this cover worth sitting through is totally overshadowed by star porn.

This made me think about other times overambitious world-healing campaigns have been propagated with star and song:
  • We Are the World (1985) by USA for Africa, featuring Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and the gang. The rich syrupy emotion seeping out of this song inspired similar efforts elsewhere, like the French all-star coalition Chansons sans frontières (singers without borders!) for Ethiopia.
  • Michael Jackson's Heal the World (1992), used in generous doses for Nickelodeon's The Big Help.
  • What's Going On (2001), a cover featuring everybody heavy on MTV's spin in the early '00s. From what I can gather, this was a vague attempt at making people more accepting of people that are different from them. (Closer inspection reveals this was actually part of Artists Against AIDS. Who knew?) Really though, this is just more star porn.

What's goin' on? People ... dyin'. People ... cryin'.

  • Where is the Love? (2003) by the Black Eyed Peas. This was its personal manifesto against people that suck, like cops that racially profile. Also, gets a golden opportunity to get some Really Intense Shit™ off his chest, post-9/11:

    Overseas we tryin' to stop terrorism, but we still got terrorists here livin'in the USA, the big CIA, the Bloods and the Crips and the KKK...
The video also includes provocative shots of vulnerable-looking children and old ethnic folk weathered by the hard knocks, left now with wise -- but sad -- elfin expressions.
  • The Living Darfur video (2007)! Featuring intro by Matt Damon! Looking awkward and bored!
  • Project (RED)'s mishmash of artists and interviews (2009), which still uses stars, but not all at once. Famous supporters are instead invited to bring the Project (RED) message to fans their own way -- a granular and potentially more useful means of using talent than a one-time audiovisual gangbang and a free MP3.

In sum:

  1. It's tough changing the world with no money, so finding supportive artists with a strong following is an understandable priority. Still, using a melange of pop stars to cover a classic hit is lazy. It does little besides raise users' "inauthenticity" antennae -- although you might get a few downloads from teeny boppers and hardcore BEP fans.
  2. Don't let cool overwhelm cause. This generation is more aware than ever of gimmicks used to bait their sympathies, and social media only exacerbates that. (Look at the comment streams for any of the above videos.) Don't fling pop at us; talk to us. Bring us the need and compel us to take matters into our own hands. Also, plugging the presence of Matt Damon in a video where he's featured for 12 seconds, looking unhappy, is not helpful.
  3. In a lot of these videos, the intentions are good but the effort too broad. It's great to get people pumped about AIDS, climate change or racism ... but what next? Where's the call to action? Project (RED) solves this problem by turning items -- like computers, iPods or Gap tees -- into opportunities to donate, and making the website info-rich and easy to navigate. On the Take Action page, you can participate how you want: by sharing, donating, buying or just staying informed.
  4. Exhaust us not with righteous rage. Or too much suffering. How many smokers quit after an activist screams at them about emphysema from across the street? How many people donate to the simpery sad guy walking hand-in-hand with barefoot children from developing nations? The rage/suffering card may work once, but it gets tedious and courts resentment -- or worse, jokes that become resonant in the culture. Be strategic and objectives-driven in each foray into the public eye.
Let me know if there are videos you'd like to add to this list -- or tips worth sharing with NGOs to improve their chances of winning space in the din. Also, thankee to Bill Green and Gaël Clouzard for bringing me the '80s Africa videos.

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