I recently received word about the Hurricane Sandy benefit that aired last Friday. I say “received word” because I spent the majority of this week with my family in Stamford, Ct. where the power will likely remain out until Groundhog Day (OK, I exaggerate, but I’ve yet to see a single cherry picker on our street). According to the MTV website, the event was hosted by Matt
Lauer and featured stellar performances by Bruce Springsteen, Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, and Jon Bon Jovi–pretty cool right? As much as I would love to write a column in which I blindly praise music’s triumph over tragedy and all the rest, I just can’t do it and mean it. I saw the concerts after Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, I saw the catharsis, and I saw the emotional healing. The problem is, I then saw the national consciousness shift rapidly and permanently away from those who are still, seven and two years later, struggling.
These relief concerts are nothing new (my parents attended Live Aid in 1985), but in recent years I feel as though they’ve become institutionalized. We can depend on them whenever disaster strikes, and they often feature the same artists performing the same songs. Last Friday Bruce Springsteen played “My City Of Ruins” and Billy Joel played “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway). The predictability is comforting, sure, but it also reduces the totality of a disaster or crises to several hours of television. Live Aid may have aired in 1985, but the African hunger crisis lives on.
I realize that benefit concerts help to raise money for those in need (over $20 million dollars on Friday), but I think it’s important to realize that our obligation doesn’t end when the curtain falls. Yes, the concerts help us process our grief and yes, they bring people together, but they shouldn’t be substituted for a long-term commitment to those in need. The danger with these celebrity-studded, highly publicized benefits is that we can start to feel a false sense of catharsis. The tragedy is packaged and presented to us in a series of video clips, and then purged out of us with help from our favorite rock anthems. We’re going through the stages of grief (that end in acceptance) while we should be asking ourselves the difficult questions like ‘How could this have been avoided?’ and ‘What are the long-term implications for the affected regions?’ Again, I’m not trying to minimize the positive effects of these benefits. I’m just trying to make sure we don’t rely on them as the be-all and end-all.
In many cases, these natural disasters have a manmade component. Whether its faulty levees (as with Katrina) or climate change mixed with outdated infrastructure (as was behind the damage from Sandy), we need to make sure that these issues are addressed alongside our own emotional need for catharsis. As a musician, I have a deep understanding of this need and of music’s ability to fulfill it. But as a citizen, I think it’s important to remember that long after we’ve moved on to the next telethon, the people in last year’s video clips still need our help.
David Ecker is a sophomore in Columbia College. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.