The image of Bono taking centre stage once again at Davos on a panel about ‘Raising Healthy Children’ could easily open up another grueling debate about the merits of the U2 lead singer as a global celebrity activist. This is a subject I have commented on in the past, notably in the Global Governance journal. Although I take an extremely positive view of Bono’s efforts (to the point of suggesting that there is a dynamic that can be termed the Bono-ization of diplomacy!), the criticism of his role as a development campaigner has to be taken seriously. Such attacks include delving into his private financial affairs pertaining to the movement of some of his corporate profile for tax advantages.
Whatever readers think about the ethical motivations and application of such hard-edged practices a bigger question has to be asked. Should we target Bono for criticism because he combines, musical entertainment, business self interest and celebrity advocacy at the same time? Can we let the older generation of rock stars off the hook for focusing on the first two activities without any sustained effort on the third?
My attention to this issue is influenced in part by my reading Keith Richards’s autobiography (Life) over the holidays. I came away with two very different thoughts. The first was a reaffirmation of the view that talents need to be cultivated if not by vigor of tiger moms and the 10,000 hours rule (the length of time that Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes to become an expert in any field). What drives the success of the Rolling Stones is how much practice they put in.
More in tune with the theme of this blog, however, is that there has never been any focused move by the Rolling Stones to do anything that benefited the public good. They were quite explicitly rebels without a genuine cause. Above all self -indulgence trumped any sense of giving back.
To be sure, this attitude can be rationalized by a number of factors. The Stones were quite clearly ripped off by promoters and managers at the early stage of their career. And in the pre-Thatcher era they had to pay massive amounts of tax, pushing them to live abroad. They even titled one of their biggest albums, Exiles on Main Street.
Yet opportunities were there for them to expand their horizons. Bianca Jagger became interested in a wide range of causes by the late 1970s but this triggered no similar commitment on Mick Jagger’s part (apart from some apparently low-key and much later project participation such as lending his voice to an education campaign in South Africa in early 2010 and work on a UN charity album in 2009).
Keith Richards was obviously impressed by Václav Havel the Czech intellectual president but there was no spillover effect after a concert in Prague. Even Eric Clapton, a well-known advocate of the view that rock stars should just ‘keep to the music’ has set up and continued to maintain a strong connection with a non-profit drug rehabilitation centre on the Caribbean island of Antigua (part of a region that Mick and Keith spent much time). Keeping to strict parameters about how rock stars should behave made the Rolling Stones immensely wealthy but in comparison to Bono the impression is one of restricted lives. It seems perverse then that the U2 singer comes under such criticism for stretching out in terms of celebrity engagement when the Rolling Stones are free of such criticism by downplaying social engagement.