It's funny -- no one is worried about "charity fatigue" any more. It's a question that used to come up all the time whenever a big benefit show was planned or an artist espoused a worthy cause. "Aren't people tired of all these do-gooders?" the TV talking heads would ask.
But the idea that people would grow bored with benefits and other efforts to actually do some good in the world was the product of a far more complacent and cynical time. Now, in the wake of the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington -- not to mention the anthrax scares that have followed so eerily -- people aren't bored at all. Instead, they're inspired to action -- and benefits are a big part of that. What you hear now is, "I just wanted to try and do something positive." It's a way to combat the helplessness and frustration of fighting an enemy that is so hard to identify.
In the music industry, activism most often means concerts to raise money, like the Concert for New York City, which started out with Paul McCartney's idea to do a benefit of his own, and then expanded to include the likes of the Who, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Macy Gray. One of the reasons that people used to worry about "charity fatigue" is that it was assumed that artists' motivations were always moist, fuzzy-headed and sentimental. That was hardly the case with McCartney.
"When that happened, it made me think, 'F--- you!'" McCartney said of his response to the bombings of the World Trade Center towers on September 11th. "F--- anyone who's going to bomb the city where my kids live because of a political difference." McCartney and his fiancée Heather Mills had watched the twin towers burn as they sat in an airplane on the tarmac at New York's JFK airport. They had been trying to fly home to England when disaster struck.
Like so many people did, McCartney felt the attack in intensely personal terms. But it didn't stop there. "My kids are half American," he explained. "My wife was American, born in New York. I have a lot of family here. But, most important, it's about what America stands for. Love it or hate it, it stands for freedom. And I get very emotional about that."
Music stands for freedom as well. The idea of 20,000 people getting together at Madison Square Garden for a concert, or even a few hundred people going to hear a band at a club, has come to seem like a blow against the darkness, a gesture in support of all the good things that this country represents. People used to ask, "What can a concert accomplish?" That was never the right question, and it's absolutely the wrong question now. Along with the practical good of raising money, it raises people's spirits and reasserts the values of freedom and self-expression that we hold dear.
As for McCartney's own hopes for the Concert for New York City, he says, "I would like it to have an effect -- and it's highly unlikely, I'm dreaming -- on Islamic nations and all Islamic people to realize that the problem is not to do with the West against Islam. This is to do with democracy and freedom. America is this giant country that took in all these people, the huddled masses. It is the cradle of that. I can't think of any other country that does that. And that is what's threatened when an attack like this happens."
Of course, McCartney feels an even greater, more immediate sense of urgency about what he has to do. "When I'm ordered to go back to work by Mayor Guiliani," he said, "that's good enough for me."
Indeed, benefits are part of the work that musicians must do, and it's an important part of fighting back and rebuilding our country and our character. The artists, of course, are the driving force, but we can all participate -- by attending the show, watching it on TV, donating money. And that commitment can be carried forward to the critical days ahead. Far from being fatigued by such events, we are energized by them.
A crisis lends significance to all of our everyday acts. Our freedom is precious, but it is only meaningful if we exercise it. "These Colors Don't Run" reads the slogan that accompanies so many of the American flags that have been proudly flying. And, on the home front, on the frontlines of our culture, we can't run either. "Let freedom ring," Bruce Springsteen used to scream at the end of his tumultuous live shows. Then he would add, "But you have to fight for it!"
So participate in the benefits and all the other relief-related activities that are coming up in the days, weeks and months ahead. And if any cynic tells you that it doesn't mean anything, you can borrow a response from Paul McCartney: F---you!