Words: James Wayne

The Global Citizens Festival on September 29th in Central Park had lofty goals. It boasted a lineup that just about anybody could enjoy (Neil Young, The Black Keys, The Foo Fighters, Band of Horses, and K’naan) and it was free with a couple of Facebook updates or tweets about global issues. The festival was attempting to quickly and efficiently send messages and raise awareness about problems that everyone could get behind such as ending polio, poverty, and malaria. These are huge problems that exist all around the world, for every kind of person – well not exactly every kind of person, not anyone who was at the festival for instance. Just because the goals are lofty and well-intentioned does not mean that they are realistic. In the end, the “festival” was paradoxical, even hypocritical, with high-handed rhetoric delivered to an overwhelmingly apathetic and unaffected crowd. In between each artist, the festival played short videos highlighting the causes about which they were attempting to raise awareness. For the crowd, these videos seemed more like commercials than short documentaries and they were mostly ignored, contributing to the feeling of apathy.

I put the word “festival” in scare quotes because, aside from multiple acts, it had none of the hallmarks that usually define the word. From the start, we “global citizens” (a.k.a. rich white folks wealthy enough to use the internet and have a twitter account) were herded through a long and elaborate maze of National Rent-A-Fence toward a great meadow. We were told to throw away all food and drink that we attempted to bring in and that there would be no alcohol sold in the venue – more on that in a bit. When we finally made it to the venue, we were again herded – I mean this literally – into pens. I’m serious. We were herded like sheep into pens which we could not leave to move forward or backward. This put the crowd into a weird mood, as we were not sure whether we liked being treated like farm animals or not. Furthermore, the 5,000+ people in our pen (woohoo go Pen #4!!) were expected to use around 15 porta-potties and one small food stand. Needless to say, the lines were ridiculous. Even though we got to Central Park about a half an hour before the music began, we could not reach the stage until after K’naan was almost finished, and we were far enough away so that we had to watch the whole thing on giant video monitors.

The reason that everyone was there, the music, had little surprises. K’naan and Band of Horses only played for about twenty minutes each, playing four or five songs including their hits. K’naan attempted to make his famous single “Wavin’ Flag” personal again by slowing it down and singing it a capella, but the attempt was lost in the face of 60,000 people who were mostly wondering who he was. Band of Horses, who could easily sell out most venues in New York City, made a joke about thanking the four people who knew them in the crowd while finishing up their twenty minute set with “The Funeral.” Then John Legend popped out of nowhere and played a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” just because it was too perfect not to. The Black Keys were allotted a longer set time, playing most of their hit songs and a couple of “old ones” (booooo!), and Dan Auerbach must have changed his guitar eight times. The highlight of the set was “Little Black Submarines.” The Foo Fighters also played a long set highlighted by lots of Dave Grohl yelps and screams, and one fart noise that kinda sounded like a balloon being deflated. Neil Young had the most memorable set of the night, but partly because it was so much weirder than the rest of the music. Everyone still remaining in the audience – many had left after The Foo Fighters – had to wait until the last song of the evening to hear a song that they knew. Neil Young filled the rest of the set with a bunch of his less famous Crazy Horse songs like “Ontario” and a brand new track “Giant on the Land” which included a laughable 10 minute reverb solo attempting to sound like a giant walking on the land. The set and the festival ended with Dave Grohl, Dan Auerbach, a bunch of dudes from Band of Horses and K’naan on stage to sing “Rockin’ in the Free World.” The song itself was lengthened to 11 minutes to include patented Neil Young guitar solos or “old man jam sessions” as one friend like to call them, awkwardly broken up by Dave Grohl leaning on Neil Young, and a reprise of the chorus. With so many musicians and instruments on stage at once, the song was awkward in the most legendary sense, and contributed to the feeling of paradox that encompassed the evening. Indeed, as K’naan was the only person of color (there were also no women), the group on stage represented, well, what the audience looked like: a couple of old dudes, a bunch of young hipstery dudes, and one black guy.

All in all, this corporate sponsored event, backed by two companies, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, most notorious for perpetuating poverty and oppression, seemed gilded and fake. In between musical acts, awards were given to people who were attempting to solve problems around the world, but these felt more like self righteous back-patting than attempts at advocacy. With all of the thanking – we as a crowd were thanked countless times – this festival seemed a lot like giving a dollar to a beggar; it makes you feel good about yourself, you don’t have to work too hard, and it does absolutely nothing to solve a problem. The festival can be summed up by one festivalgoers name for the shirts and hats advertising the concert: #povertyswag.

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