SXSW 2011: Bob Geldof delivers a stirring keynote/call to action

March 17, 2011

AUSTIN—I’ll admit it: My reaction to the news that former Boomtown Rat and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof would deliver the keynote address at the 25th South by Southwest Music Conference was beyond skeptical. More like, “Well, they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel now.”
 
The high-profile centerpiece talk once at least tried to set some broader agenda for the conference. But in recent years, it’s become more of a showcase for an admittedly legendary star, gleefully reminiscing about the high points of his past, with little acknowledgment of the present, let alone the future. (See my rundown of the 20 keynotes I’ve covered below.)
 
Geldof, like several of the acts at SXSW 2011 (Duran Duran? The Bangles? Really?) just seemed so... ’80s, not to mention self-serving in a sort of Bono-lite way.
 
But the Irishman surprised, opening with a few very funny and self-deprecating comments about exactly that: So sorry, but I’m not Bono.
 
So what was the artist and activist? Unapologetically optimistic, in part; for Geldof, rock ’n’ roll remains the real music of the American revolution, with the power to inspire the world to adopt this country’s great values. Witness the underground punk scene in China, or the events on the streets of Tripoli… or in Madison, Wisc.
 
“Artists should articulate what is said before it is said,” Geldof said. And, “Music needs a message to provoke change.” And, “Music by definition is the only expression of the delirium of life.”
 
But Geldof also was angry, and extremely so. “America seems exhausted,” he said. And, “Everyone has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say.” And, “The music I hear is continental naval-gazing.” And, “Rock ’n’ roll needs to be against something.”
 
In an invigoratingly Noam Chomsky-ish style, Geldof believes that revolution not only is necessary, but still possible—thanks to the power of music. And no, the role of the musician is not to directly change the world via politics and policy. (Hear that, Bono?) It simply is to comment on it (even indirectly; no need for specific lyrics about the G8), put it in context, and energize us.
 
“Context is vital,” Geldof said. “It must be about society. Where are our Ramones and our Pistols today? Do we need them? Yes! Yes is the answer. Will they be found? Maybe not. … Where is the danger?”
 
We’re looking for it, Bob. Some of us are looking for it, and sometimes we even find it.
 
So, how did Geldof rank on the list of the 20 keynotes I’ve covered? Let’s grade them on the patented “Sound Opinions” scale.
 
Buy It: Gov. Ann Richards, 1993 (a very cool lady, and genuinely exciting—and can we ever imagine saying that about Pat Quinn launching a music shindig?); Johnny Cash, 1994 (with guitar in hand; mind-blowing); Bob Mould, 1995 (always inspiring); Lucinda Williams, 1999 (she sang “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”); Steve Earle, 2000 (always a gripping speaker); Bob Geldof, 2011 (a refreshing return to trying to rouse and inspire America’s biggest annual gathering of truth-tellers).
 
Burn It: Krist Novoselic, 1996 (well-intentioned, but scattered); Carl Perkins, 1997 (legendary, but not for speaking); Nick Lowe, 1998 (ditto); Ray Davies, 2001 (a fine storyteller, but not much connection to the new millennium); Little Richard, 2004 (a legend, to be sure, but a bit of a trainwreck); Robert Plant, 2005 (lots of stories about the old days); Neil Young, 2006 (a hero, but it should have been better); Pete Townshend, 2007 (ditto).
 
Trash It: Michelle Shocked, 1992 (a complete disaster); Robbie Robertson, 2002 (unbearably pompous); Daniel Lanois, 2003 (almost as bad as Robertson); Lou Reed, 2008 (grouchy, and hamstrung by the interviewer format); Quincy Jones, 2009 (let me tell you what I genius I am); Smokey Robinson, 2010 (let me have Dave Marsh tell you what a genius I am).