Saturday’s Global Citizen Festival, held for more than 60,000 people on a sunny day in Central Park, gathered a mind-boggling roster of musicians, activists, world leaders, actors, CEOs, innovators and celebrity babies (Suri Cruise!) to spread the message “ours is not a generation of bystanders,” as Mark Zuckerberg put it in a video.
The event was creative directed by Coldplay’s Chris Martin and he’s signed on for the job for the next 15 years. The day began with his band, opening with “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” and “Viva La Vida,” Martin’s onstage enthusiasm and charm infectious enough to dissipate some of the less-than-charitable vibes brought on by long entry lines. (“It’s the Secret Service, not NYPD,” defended more than one New York cop, as serious-looking security rifled through bags, confirming rumors that both Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama were in attendance.) Announcing that he hoped to earn some generational crossover cachet, Martin introduced special guest Ariana Grande (at the behest of his children), and the impeccably toned singer dueted on Grande’s “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” before Coldplay debuted new track “Amazing Day,” a midtempo ballad with Fifties doo-wop influences, shades of Ritchie Valens’ “Donna” in its heart.
Here’s a good cross-section of the day’s wild roster: before Ed Sheeran even took the stage and played powerful tracks like “Bloodstream,” the audience was treated to Stephen Colbert and Hugh Jackman cracking jokes and singing “Jeremy” before emphasizing the event’s goals of ending hunger, promoting sustainable growth and working to empower women and girls; Salma Hayek and Queen Rania of Jordan discussing the importance of assisting Syrian refugees, particularly displaced youth; a surprise performance by Tori Kelly, including a lovely cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”; Connie Britton, Bill Nye, Katie Holmes, Suri Cruise, Kerry Washington; Leonardo diCaprio (in the flesh!) discussing the dangers of climate change; and in the day’s most surreal moment, the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, in conversation with Big Bird.
Though the unifying goal was eliminating global poverty by 2030, many of the day’s speakers placed a special emphasis on empowering women and girls, with global poverty being a leading cause of gender inequality. So Beyoncé’s presence made an impact beyond her dazzling set design, glimmering leotards and perfectly whipping hair, as she delivered full set of unequivocal girl power anthems and beseeched us all to feel ourselves. “Get lost and dance like children and snap your fingers!” she intoned, as a crowd of women in our vicinity sang along and mimicked her every melismatic note through heartfelt tracks like “XO,” “Halo,” “7/11” and an Ed Sheeran-assisted version of “Drunk in Love.” (Sheeran, who’s covered the song before, looked a little bewildered to be there.)
Though Bey’s set list and choreography was nearly identical to her Made in America performance, certain tracks held particular resonance. Before a medley that included “Survivor,” she asked, “Do we have any survivors in the house?” More than rhetoric in a day that spotlighted horrors like female genital mutilation and hosted Pakistani education activist/Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, the word had graver implications. She asked it again, and at once it felt like Beyoncé was giving permission to women who’ve been abused to speak their truths.
Though there might have been a worry that Bey’s starpower would eclipse the day’s goal, she led right into Michelle Obama with a hug, who gave a speech launching her #62milliongirls Twitter initiative, meant to speak up for the estimated 62 million girls globally who do not have access to education. After a few more speakers, Pearl Jam opened with “Mind Your Manners” and powered through a set full of bona fide hits, dedicating “Given to Fly” to Malala and displaying all the resonant passion that’s made them a top rock band for 25 years. They displayed their own type of immense star power, pared down to nary a spectacle, and certain tracks — “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Alive” — had audience members tearing up as truly as during Bey’s set.
The true show-stealer was Eddie Vedder and Beyoncé’s surprise rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Vedder, alone onstage with an acoustic guitar having performed a sweet cover of “Imagine” and noting Lennon’s would-be 75th birthday this October, announced her to the stage by declaring, “It’s not everyday you get to sing with a queen. Please welcome to the stage, Beyoncé!” His grin and slight giggle betrayed his own excitement — even the grunge king is #Beyhive.
Beyoncé emerged wearing jeans and a Global Citizen t-shirt, saying nothing as Vedder strummed the opening notes. They traded verses and converged on the chorus, their voices surprisingly, intimately resonant together — something about Vedder’s perpetually raw intonations and Beyoncé’s clarion hit a very sweet spot, and on the higher notes they sounded almost country, seriously comparable in vibrato quivers to those of Nicks and Henley. The song was lovely enough, but the alliance on such a politically rich song washed away the superego of the whole star-studded event by re-emphasizing its core values, and the tagline its speakers had been touting the whole day: “We’ve come together as one world,” as President Obama spoke in an aired video slot, “to realize the change that we seek. Today we’re setting new global goals for development, and every nation, every sector, every government, every citizen, has to do our part. That’s how change happens. That’s how together, we can uphold the inherent dignity of every human being.”