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Off Key: Give Bono a Break

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, January 19, 2006



Every year, Time magazine picks a mover and a shaker to name as its Person of the Year. This year, they chose three: Bill and Melinda Gates, and U2's Bono, all of whom join a group including Adolf Hitler and "the Computer." While the choice of the Gates' didn't turn many heads, a lot of people had a problem with Bono's selection. What was this outspoken singer doing receiving the same award as groundbreaking politicians, scientists and businessmen?

Flipping through a few of cable's always-informative news opinion shows revealed indignation from angry talking heads. Apparently, to some of them, Bono is just an annoying rock star who has gotten too big for his britches. As if managing one of the wealthiest companies in the world in a cutthroat industry somehow makes the Gates' more qualified to care about the world's poor.

We have some odd standards for our musicians in America.

For a while there, it was okay to sing about politics and injustice, as long as you didn't necessarily do much about either. Witness Bob Dylan or Creedence, for example. Aside from the occasional System of a Down single, popular music is detached from global events.

Attempts by musical figures to speak about the hot issues of the day in the mainstream are met with disinterest. Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign apparently didn't instill a sufficient fear of death in the voting public. The Dixie Chicks didn't seem to be able to persuade their fan base that you could love America and vote Democrat.

Which is what makes the disdain for Bono so weird. His work for human rights has been for the most part below the radar and -- get this -- effective. Whether you like U2's music or not is irrelevant -- the man gets results.

Bono is working to make poverty and AIDS visible public issues. He founded DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade and Africa), dedicated to raising awareness about the effects of economic policies on Africa, as well as the spread of AIDS. He's also instrumental in the ONE Campaign, a worldwide united front of nonprofits working to educate people on poverty issues and demonstrate to world leaders that the general population cares about such issues. Political insiders have refered to Bono as the voice of conscience for some power players, including our president. Unlike angry artists, Bono channels his energy into working with those in power instead of rallying against hem.

Don't get me wrong -- I grew up on punk rock, the official music of the soap box. Every song was pretty much anti-something. A girl in high school once asked me in a disinterested Southern drawl if I was "anti-everything." In some cases, the artists are pretty literate, and I've been turned on to some pretty serious issues through punk, from feminism to fair trade.

Some things in this world are so fundamentally wrong, there isn't much you can hope to do but turn the distortion up and yell. We all have our own ways of dealing with a world that doesn't live up to our notions of fairness and beauty, whether it's creating pissed off music or simply shutting our eyes. The older I've gotten the more I've been forced to see things pragmatically. And until Ian MacKaye and Noam Chomsky are meeting with President Bush about economic justice, I'll be glad to buy Bono a drink.

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