Critical Digressions: Live 8 at Sandspit

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Beach_2_1 Last night, on the way to (and from) Sandspit beach, we tuned to Live 8 on FM 91 and heard Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys and Junoon. After washing down crab “lollipops” with Murree beer in the spray of the dark frothy sea, we reclined on the sand and smoked a Dunhill, fondly recalling Live Aid in ‘85. We remember the balding Phil Collins behind a piano singing “In the Air Tonight” with great feeling; the exciting new band, U2 (whom we often confused with UB40); and square-jawed Bob Geldof’s speeches on famine. We also remember attempting to conceptualize “famine.” When we asked our mother, she gave us a lecture on being grateful that our father puts food on the table and on the importance of finishing all the food on our plate – especially our vegetables.

Crowd_1 Live 8 has been billed as the “biggest and best rock concert the world has ever seen.” Will Smith proclaimed that “this is bigger than the World Series, the Super Bowl, even the Olympics” – a rather parochial observation. Although nostalgia colors memory, we believe that Live Aid was epic, historic. Live 8 felt like a rerun. Live Aid generated funds. Live 8 generated rhetoric. The calls for revolution were silly: taking to the stage Madonna asked the crowd, “Are you ready to start a revolution? Are you ready to change history? I said, are you ready?” Perhaps in ‘85, revolution had some promise, certain meaning. Now it just means going round and round. Madonna’s been going round and round for the last twenty years but we don’t know if she has contributed to the relief of the poor. What about Geldof? Last we heard, he “dubbed himself ‘Mr Bloody Africa’ for his role as a reluctant spokesman on issues concerning the continent.” He added, “visiting Africa ‘bores me profoundly.’” That may explain why the only Africans on stage were back-up singers. And what of the brown masses? What of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka? Live 8 might be a noble endeavor but here in South Asia, one of the poorest regions of world, Africa seems far away.

Freddymercury_1 Also, although we were excited by Live 8’s main event, Pink Floyd’s reunion and performance (especially as Sandspit last night was something like the dark side of the moon), somehow it did not compare to Freddy Mercury chanting “We Will Rock You” while waving the length of the microphone before him like a god. It seemed that during those moment on stage in ‘85, Mercury realized that although he commanded godlike appeal, he was mortal and would die. When performing live, both Floyd and Queen typically relied on spectacle but when standing before us, without the smoke, the outrageous costumes and dazzling lights, the former shrinks to size while latter grows in stature.

Nusrat_1 As we sprawl and smoke on the beach, we mull the following: although comparing Queen to Floyd may make sense, can one compare, say, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Pavarotti? Is it  a “melon-to-melon” comparison? Is it a matter of a discrepancy in discourse, a matter of assigning significance to one tradition over another? We considered consulting critics but we realized we don’t know of any. Although we are familiar with, say, Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer winning New York Times literary critic, we aren’t familiar with the Times music critic. In fact, come to think of it, we have never consulted a music critic. Like you, ladies and gentlemen, we like to think that we know music. Like you, we can tell good from bad music. And like you, we’ve been listening to music as far as we can remember: the Sabri Brothers, the “Sound of Music,” and Tom Jones’ “Greatest Hits,” figure prominently on the soundtrack of our five-year-old memories. Since then, we have discovered bands on our own, including the “Flaming Lips,” the “Arcade Fire,” and “Architecture in Helsinki.”

Moonrise_1 We obviously don’t care about the canon of music criticism. On the other hand, we do care about literary criticism. We are, for instance, curious about the critical consensus on McEwan (who is probably overrated), Foer (who is definitely overrated) or Yates (who is underrated). Whether at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge or at Thomas & Thomas in Saddar, we, like you, always flip a book around to read the quoted accolades on the back. Why this difference in the reception of music and literary criticism? Is it because critics are only important to mediums that require exegesis, like visual art. After all without critics, Rothko’s black canvases remain black canvases. We need Arthur Danto (and our superb in-house experts) to make sense of Brillo boxes. We need Akbar Naqvi to canonize Pakistani art. Right? Frankly we don’t know, and at this moment, don’t care. We know this: we are comfortably numb and it’s a warm, lusty summer night and the shreds of moon in the sky suggests that God is in Heaven and all is well with the world.