It’s true, that old adage about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Sometimes, there’s a seed of a great idea, one that involves a number of powerful celebrities with household names combining the behemoths of their popularity for a noble cause. It blossoms, budding with it an awareness that leaves everyone involved with a fuller head and a determined heart. And sometimes, that road winds and winds around nearly five hours of blitzed sets from some of the biggest names in rock and pop, and it deposits you somewhere under the neon coils of the Flaming Lips’ stage setup as the crew rushes to piece it together while Wayne Coyne is flapping his tinsel wings above them and Yoko Ono is wandering around the stage like a grandmother who’s been kicked out of the kitchen on Thanksgiving.
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Amnesty International’s idea was to, as they’ve done in the past to great success, produce a super concert with musicians sympathetic to their humanitarian cause in hopes of raising awareness for their mission. Their timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, with the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi today. The Games have been a prominent fixture in the news since the decision to host them in Putin’s Russia was announced, as homophobic, xenophobic and hyper-conservative political legislation has been embraced and carried out with frightening fervor under the President’s administration.
In 2012, Pussy Riot, a punk activist band from Moscow, made headlines the world over when members of the group–who regularly protest against Putin–were arrested for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after they burst into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a performance that lasted less than a minute. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were each sentenced to two years in prison, though they were released in December 2013. The women were named political prisoners by Amnesty International. Though they (and many others) considered their release to be a publicity stunt by Putin given the nearing start date of the Olympics, their release was celebrated, and their mission to raise awareness for the kind of Russia they live in has not waned.
Pussy Riot was supported by recording artists across the globe throughout the duration of their time in prison: Paul McCartney wouldn’t play “Back In The U.S.S.R.” during his massive festival-hopping 2013 tour without throwing a “FREE PUSSY RIOT!” into the mix. Madonna, who was touring in Russia at the time of their arrest, called the women “courageous” for their activism, spoke out against their imprisonment and told the Russian government to back the hell off when they warned her against making any statement on her stage that could be considered supportive of LGBTQ rights.
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Popular musicians became some of the band’s strongest allies, if only in the headlines, which was enough to make their plight a prominent topic of conversation. And so a star-studded concert like Amnesty International’s Bringing Human Rights Home offered up the unique opportunity to tap the talents of like-minded artists for a crowd-pleasing night of entertainment while providing Nadia and Masha support and a platform for their message on the eve of the Olympic Games. If Lauryn Hill and Blondie and Colbie Caillat can get butts in seats, fine: those butts in seats will listen to Pussy Riot talk about what they’ve been through in between sets, with an intro from Madonna to boot, and that, by all accounts, is a good thing.
… Or is it? To circle back to the whole “road to hell, good intentions” thing, the performances at Bringing Human Rights Home were earnest if not totally rushed and poorly planned. Though the lineup was stacked and able, there’s absolutely no need for a show consisting of three-song sets to reach the four-hour mark, let alone substantially surpass it. By the time the still-standing members of the lineup staggered out to the stage for a half-hearted, sleepy singalong of “I Shall Be Released” led by Sean Lennon, everyone in that room who had a (still viable) phone was checking the time. The Barclays Center had nearly emptied by half by the time the lights went up around 12:45 a.m., and the wonderful moments–Lauryn Hill’s (timely!) entrance with “Ready or Not,” Bob Geldof stomping through “The Great Song of Indifference,” which he’d dedicated to Pete Seeger, an adorably apologetic Tegan and Sara, Cold War Kids’ “Hospital Beds”–had long since been forgotten.
That’s to say nothing for the eyebrow-spiking irony of having a band called Cold War Kids open a benefit concert condemning atrocities perpetrated by the Russian government. Or that Imagine Dragons, arguably the “biggest” band on the bill with a Grammy in their pocket and an SNL performance just a week behind them, blasted through “Radioactive,” their explosive single about the dissolution of mankind in the face of apocalypse, at an Amnesty International benefit. The Flaming Lips attempting “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a crime in and of itself, as was the disheartening lack of enthusiasm the crowd showed once Nadia and Masha of Pussy Riot took their turn at the microphone to sincerely and profusely thank them, and Amnesty International, for caring about their cause.
The most telling moment of the whole night occurred just moments after Pussy Riot walked offstage to feigned interest and applause, only to have the room back on its feet and shrieking with joy when it was announced that Imagine Dragons would be taking the stage momentarily. In that transition, the nature of the crowd, and the event, was exposed: this was a room full of people who were totally cool with helping out and stuff, but they were here to see the bands that they listen to on an iHeart Radio station on the way home from work.
This was a room full of people who, more likely than not, didn’t really know who Pussy Riot were, even though they had Madonna demanding that they greet them with “HELL MOTHERFUCKIN’ YEAH!” upon their arrival onstage. This was a room full of people who were looking forward to watching Shaun White add a few more gold medals to his collection in Sochi without acknowledging the fact that the Olympics are taking place in a country that wants to extinguish voices like Nadia and Masha’s by the thousands. This was a room full of people with the best of intentions who had absolutely no desire to receive the message we were all gathered to hear.
This is not to slight Amnesty International, its mission nor the activist efforts of all involved; they are to be commended for doing their taking on the Olympics and Pussy Riot’s treatment in the first place, and for forcing that room full of people to confront questions they wouldn’t necessarily face. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that “Radioactive”–a song more to do with the Apocalypse than hope–may be, in fact, the anthem the benefit Bringing Human Rights Home deserves, because this may really be it if voices like Putin’s go unchallenged. We should all have a giant, festering bone to pick with that.