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NBC’s Live Earth Special: A Running Diary

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When I was about halfway through taking notes on the three-hour NBC Live Earth special, Bridget asked me if I felt OK making fun of an event with a cause so obviously good. It was a good question. Live Earth is, by any measure, a pretty staggering achievement: hundreds of artists on seven continents, all assembled to remind us to buy those spirally power-saving lightbulbs. If it weren’t for the 77-drummer Boredoms thing, I would’ve definitely done everything in my power to make it out to the Giants Stadium show, partly because I can’t resist it whenever such a random assortment of pop stars (Kelly Clarkson! Roger Waters! Dave Matthews! Akon!) convenes for any reason, but also partly because it seems to be, by any measure, a good thing. Ever since Al Gore won and then lost the presidency, he’s been on this endlessly quixotic years-long quest to tell the world at large about sustainable energy, and even more amazingly, he actually appears to be making some sort of impact. There’s a sort of irresistible honor to him these days, and I salute him for this whole thing. And since pompous douchebag Bob Geldof dissed Life Earth, I’m even more convinced of the event’s worth. But maybe it’s something about the impact of TV on these things, but any sort of charity-based entertainment spectacular is going to result in a whole lot of cringeworthy self-congratulation and sanctimony, and it’s always OK to make fun of that stuff. These things can be important and ridiculous at the same time. So: a running diary.

8:00: We start things off with a montage of adorable multiracial kids mumbling about what they can do for the environment. See? Naked, cynical manipulation-tactics can be used for good as well as evil!

8:03: Giants Stadium actually doesn’t look that full. Leonardo DiCaprio welcomes everyone and tells us that in the past couple of years, a consensus has emerged about the existence of global warming. The past couple of years? Really? Is he being diplomatic? I’m pretty sure I had classes about it in like fourth grade. He also introduces a casual-Friday version of Al Gore, who has his shortsleeve button-down awkwardly tucked into some stone-washed jeans. You have to love anyone willing to look that goofy in front of the world.

8:07: The first song of the show: Keith Urban and Alicia Keys singing “Gimme Shelter”? Really? Who thought this would be a good idea? Urban does credibly enough; he is, after all, a beast of a guitarist. Alicia Keys actually seems like she’d be a good fit with this song, if only because she should be able to murder the high notes on the chorus. You’d think she’d do OK, right? But no. She sounds like ass. I don’t understand it. How can it be so hard to find an R&B singer who can convincingly rock out? “Gimme Shelter” will, of course, be the first of about a million songs on this telecast that sound like they could be about the world going all to hell.

8:09: Carson Daly talks to Rosario Dawson about how important Earth is. Kanye barges into the conversation and says that he’s about to run all over the stadium to get this message across. And this message is: “Pay attention to me.” (Sorry. Had to.)

8:11: Hey, it’s Madonna singing “Hung Up”! I like this song! Her backup dancers work hard to set new standards in unintentional hilarity; this is possibly the least convincing heterosexual grinding I’ve ever seen. And now Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello is running up onstage to dance at the end of the song? What the fuck? Why?

8:19: My two-year streak of never mentioning Dave Matthews on Status Ain’t Hood comes to a crashing halt. As far as unassuming granola folk-rock goes, “Don’t Drink the Water” is a pretty OK song, but who told this guy that he should sing? He sounds like he’s dying. I haven’t been on a college campus in a minute; do people still like this guy?

8:24: If her interview with Ann Curry is any indication, Sting’s wife is just as infuriatingly haughty as he is. If I ever get invited to a dinner party at their house, I have to remember not to go.

8:28: Chris Rock: “Every day in Jamaica a little baby bursts into flames.” Huh? He introduces the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who London appears to love. It’s getting harder and harder to even look at these guys. Do they just lack the capacity for embarrassment? Anthony Kiedis is a better singer than Dave Matthews, anyway.

8:36. More Al Gore. Boy, he and Melissa Ethridge sure seem to like each other. NBC kindly limits Ethridge’s participation in this telecast to some blown kisses. When Gore really gets going, he’s more fun to watch than most of the bands at this thing.

8:39: The Foo Fighters actually sound pretty good doing “Times Like These” in London. It’s nice to know that some people can still come off as being pretty comfortable in front of a bigass stadium crowd.

8:44: I didn’t know they made V-neck t-shirts as wide as the one John Mayer is wearing here; that’s a whole lot of chest. Mayer’s facial expressions are still hilarious. Isn’t “Waiting on the World to Change” just exactly the wrong song to be playing here? Like, isn’t the whole point that apathy is bad? Randy Jackson is enjoying it, anyway.

8:52: Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood sing a really nice gospelly rendition of “We Shall Be Free” in DC. Hey, remember when Garth Brooks was like the biggest star on the planet? You never hear anyone mention him in any context these days.

8:54: Ann Curry interviews some lady who tell us to unplug our cell-phone and iPod chargers when we aren’t using them because they still use power even when they’re not charging anything. Whoa, I just learned something useful. That was unexpected.

8:58: I definitely haven’t heard “Hips Don’t Lie” enough times; it’s a good thing Shakira is here to fix that. Her hair’s been all straightened, which looks sort of wrong, but I could watch her dance all day. Her fake Wyclef is noticeably less annoying than the real Wyclef.

9:06: People killing, people dying! Children hurting, women crying! Will you practice what you preach? Or will you turn the other cheek? Father father father help us! Send some guidance from above! Cause people got me got me questioning! Where is the love? Um, I like this song.

9:10: Alicia Keys manages not to mangle “Mercy Mercy Me” quite as badly as she did “Gimme Shelter.” I guess she’s really just not a live singer. And hey, now it’s John Legend and Corrine Bailey Rae singing the exact same song in London! I wonder which of them thought of it first.

9:19: Ah, awesome, it’s that band of scientific researchers playing in Antarctica; I was totally hoping they’d show this. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine went down to Antarctica on a research trip, and I’ve been totally fascinated with the place ever since he told me about it. Apparently so many researchers and support-staff go down there during the summer months that they have an actual little town with a video-rental place and a bowling alley and like three bars, and I’d really like to see that before I die. I was hoping they’d show the band playing in one of those bars, but no, they’re standing outside by themselves, and their footage is being intercut with some stock-footage of penguins. The band sounds sort of like Ted Leo, and they might be my favorite thing on this telecast yet.

9:23: Genesis plays “Land of Confusion.” Unfortunately no puppets. Fortunately no Robin Williams.

9:30: Al Gore has an announcement: this is the largest global entertainment event in all of history. He’s such a tease! How do they measure something like that, anyway? Ann Curry comes out and asks him straight-up if he’s running for president, and he looks all uncomfortable and says no without really saying no.

9:33: Highlights of the Australia show. Jack Johnson is so bland that he almost doesn’t exist. I like Wolfmother a whole lot more after playing “Woman” on Guitar Hero 2 a few hundred times, and it’s nice to see a would-be stadium-rock band playing an actual stadium. Crowded House gets a whole shitload of people to sing along with “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Whenever the bands in America try to get the crowd to sing along, you hear complete silence, and apparently it’s not because the sound-recording is weird; it’s because American audiences are apathetic as fuck.

9:37: Kelly Clarkson fucking rips through “Since U Been Gone,” which, OK, is a much better song than “Never Again.” Clive Davis still skeezes me out, though.

9:40: The Beastie Boys bring back the “Sabotage” suits from the 1994 VMAs. Someone, presumably Money Mark, impressively vaults over a keyboard. MCA basically does a John Entwistle impression, impassively playing bass while chaos erupts around him. I’m glad these old motherfuckers can still inject some anarchy when they have to.

9:48: Kanye is now making his string section wear Liquid Sky eye-makeup, but at least he’s keeping them around instead of replacing them with animatronic robots or something. He’s still fun to watch, even if I never need to hear “Gold Digger” again.

9:50: The highlights from the Shanghai show reveal a total alternate pop-music universe: a gang of Cantopop singers, a band of Stones imitators, a flautist, Sarah Brightman. Wow, that two-minute clip-show was totally fascinating; I wish they’d shown more. Frustratingly, NBC doesn’t identify any of the performers.

9:52: Oh snap, it’s Duran Duran doing “Girls on Film” and squeezing in an improbably shredding guitar solo, nice! I like that this telecast has seemingly altogether abandoned vague message-songs for gleaming pop-music trash, which is always more interesting.

10:03: Joss Stone, in Johannesburg, goes full-on 60s-soul pantomime; I wonder if she’s heated about Amy Winehouse stealing her thunder by being a fuckup. “Tell Me ‘Bout It” is still a better song than anything Amy Winehouse has ever done.

10:08: Good to see that the dudes in Metallica are still talking to each other. Every time I see James Hetfield, he looks more and more like someone who’d give you menacing stares at a rest stop in Oklahoma. That or Mel Gibson. His new forked goatee is just the latest step in a long journey. “Enter Sandman” is an awesome song, but you already knew that.

10:16: Interesting programming decision: Bon Jovi emphatically fails to outrock Metallica. It’s sort of sad how the most convincing rock stars on this show are the ones from twenty years ago.

10:22: Well, at least the most convincing rock stars of the show aren’t the ones from thirty years ago. Roger Waters looks painfully ridiculous singing “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” surrounded by dancing kids while an inflatable pig-balloon circles the stadium.

10:30: Even in the form of a thirty-second clip from the Kyoto show, Yellow Magic Orchestra comes perilously close to putting me to sleep. In its own way, that’s sort of impressive.

10:34: Madonna sings “Hey You,” a fiercely boring ballad; I guess “La Isla Bonita” wouldn’t be vaguely topical enough. She also has an adorable-kid choir, which I guess is a last-ditch crutch for pop stars who want to look compassionate.

10:38: Whoa, Tokyo is unbelievably amped for Linkin Park! After the past two and a half hours, it’s almost a shock to see a stadium-rock crowd acting like a stadium-rock crowd. I like Linkin Park’s emo makeover.

10:44: We were never going to make it through three hours of this without Kravitz, were we? He’s in Rio, doing “Let Love Rule,” which is probably my favorite Lenny Kravitz song ever. That’s not saying much, granted, but we should be thankful for small favors.

10:50: The Police graciously allow John Mayer onstage with them to play the “Message in a Bottle” riff; I wonder if he’s been practicing it on Guitar Hero 2. Ack, now Kanye’s onstage! And he’s rapping! And Sting is mispronouncing his first name! Wow, Kanye’s verse here is some truly abysmal shit. When he gets done his verse, he stays onstage and plays hypeman until the end of the song, which is pretty funny. Clearly, this show would’ve been a whole lot better if Kanye had just played hypeman for every band. You know he would’ve been happy to do it, too.

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