Global Citizen: One World of Little Worlds

Just watched the Global Citizen webcast or broadcast or whatever kind of ‘cast it was…a benefit, I think, to raise money? Awareness? It was carried on all sorts of channels but I saw it on YouTube because…who has broadcast any more? 

In any case, this is our world now. Fragmented. Separate. Accessed through different channels, at different times. Distributed, or perhaps just scattered. And unified only by the Internet.

Honestly, I didn’t find it reassuring. Encouraging, maybe. But overall, unnerving. Let me explain.  

I’m very accustomed to watching video on YouTube, and I’ve done a webcast of myself playing music, and I’ll do it again, soon. I’m familiar with the #TogetherAtHome and #stayathome new reality. But the experience Saturday night was, for me, nothing ike the experience promised, of “One World.” Instead, I got a strong sense of total, utter separation.

Instead of the feeling of unity that usually comes from watching a group of stars gathered on a stage and calling out around the world, this was a series of tiny videos by individuals in, for the most part, extremely casual dress, with surprisingly minimal technical and artistic settings. The overwhelming feeling for me was of extreme separation, extreme smallness.

This is not how The Rolling Stones are meant to be enjoyed.

And if you don’t have broadcast TV (who does?), and watched it on YouTube after the fact, having to search each one separately just added to the sense of separateness. Each artist, in a different place…some bridged it, some did it together, some did four way connections. 

But honestly, this event just underlined, for me, the isolating aspects of our current dilemma – and that even the biggest stars have some pretty poor taste in interior decoration.

There were moments, no doubt, and I’ll share a few of them here so you don’t have to go through all of them. Some artists made quite an effort, some successfully, some not so much, and others didn’t seem to bother at all. Seriously, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas recorded a whole album at home, a Grammy-sweeping one at that, and they couldn’t find a microphone for our dear girl?

It seems callous to offer criticisms at such a time, and really, I’m not; Everyone is dealing with this in their own way, and if nothing else, Saturday night’s “event” captured its moment perfectly – even the many imperfections. In fact, when someone tried too hard, as J-Lo did with her over-the-top, beautifully-set, and probably lip-synched version of “People,” it didn’t work. This is an unprecedented moment, and a whole new form of entertainment, and even the biggest stars in the world seemed ill-at-ease with the new form.

As one of the many NOT big stars in the world, I took some encouragement from it – we’re all in on the ground floor on this one, and my YouTube video can be as good as Paul McCartney’s. This does not make me in any way equal to Paul McCartney, good grief; but it does mean that we’re both working within the same parameters, and the same tiny little screen, and the same DIY (do-it-yourself) limitations.

COVID-19 has already shown itself to be an equalizer – Saturday night’s “event” underscored that. It has stripped many artists of all their trappings; it’s down to the song and the singer now.

I didn’t watch all of the videos, but I caught quite a few, and they ranged all over the place. The whole thing was somewhat reminiscent of the broadcast of A Tribute to Heroes event that aired just 10 days after the events of 9/11, but the feeling was so very different. That wasn’t a live event, with an audience, either, mostly because it was put together very quickly. But it was felt more fit to the occasion – and Bruce Springsteen’s new “My City in Ruins” set the bar high…

Still, folks did what they could, and there some beautiful, notable performances Saturday night:

Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day did “Wake Me Up When September Ends” over a montage of shots from around a silent, depopulated world, and his was the moment – the only moment – that brought me even close to tears – all those empty streets, along with the notion that it might not be until September that things feel even remotely normal (though I also know that’s optimistic).

The most entertaining video was the only one that made good use of interesting technology (where are David Bowie and Peter Gabriel when we need them?) was Keith Urban’s clever performance of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” which had the added bonus of a ghostly Nicole Kidman (honestly, get that woman into the sunlight!).

Stevie Wonder went straight for the emotion, and even threw in a tribute to Bill Withers; his classic “Love’s in Need of Love Today” with its evocation of “the world’s disaster” – the same song he sang in 2001 – and his voice was pushed to its limit with emotion.

There were a number of performances by younger artists that were stronger than their elders, technically, vocally, and performances by Kesha (holy hell!), Hozier and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello were all fine. Adam Lambert brought a little bit of gay and glitter to the proceedings, but it was Annie Lennox, with daughter Lola, who evoked the good times best, with “There Must Be An Angel” – all that was missing was Stevie Wonder’s harmonica.

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder went to the trouble to create atmosphere, with his haunting “River Cross,” played solo on an organ, surrounded by candles, with one line jumping out at me – “Let it be a lie that all futures die” – that inspired more dread than hope.

Paul McCartney’s performance was a touch wobbly (he’s 77!), but his introduction was not, a plea for the health care workers who, like his mother during World War II, was on the front lines during a global disaster.

And bless ’em for trying, but the Stones’ great “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” seemed a weird-yet-appropriate, sorta, attempt at relevance. But it was hampered by the utter weirdness of the “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” separated by distance and technology, struggling (or not even trying?) to sync, with drummer Charlie Watts weirdly stick-syncing and uncharacteristically hamming it up. It was just weird.

There were some very professional tries, and kudos to the singers who just went for straight performances, such as John Legend, Lady Gaga and Andrea Boccelli, but the overall vibe was of disconnection, separateness, and inadequacy to the moment. I’ve seen a lot of benefit concerts, at home and in person, and this was by far the strangest, least-affecting and, at the end of the night, the saddest.

To me, the most striking performance of the night was from none other than Taylor Swift, whose “Soon You’ll Get Better” struck exactly the right chord: Sad, realistic, hopeful, resigned…lots of complex emotions, and what else would do? Beyond that, the setting of the performance was simple, direct, technically astute and lovely: If anyone is poised to take artistic advantage of this moment, it is certainly a digital native like Swift.

Overall, it was a noble try, and more than that, it was an interesting reality check: EVERYONE, even the biggest stars in the world, are unprepared and uncomfortable with this relatively new, and suddenly imperative form of concertizing. This is a leveling of the playing field that we’ve not encountered before, and I found it weirdly encouraging as well as disorienting.

I’m working with a client, Local Talent Live, which is rolling out a new platform to address this new state of affairs, and I have taken a shot at it myself, as have my friends Jessica Malone, Hans Eberbach and Kate Gaffney. We’re all in this together, no matter how far apart.

Concerts, as we’ve known them, will not return any time soon; this is a new form of entertainment, and the learning curve will be steep. There will be yet another winnowing as we go through this, and Saturday night underlined that in a big way,

So here’s the New Normal, in all its disorienting abnormality. Let the games begin.

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website,
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David Watts Barton

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