Five years ago, a trio of friends rented out a one-room office in downtown Decatur, Ga., with the admittedly naive goal of starting a national music magazine that would ignore both indie snobbery and pop-culture sycophantism, instead focusing on music that we loved. It was an incredibly selfish endeavor: “Let’s make the music magazine we would most want to read.” No market research or targeted demographics. We filled issue #1 with all our personal favorites—Wilco, Victoria Williams, Tom Waits, Vigilantes of Love, Speech, Sam Phillips and Brian Wilson. To keep ourselves entertained, we included film, books and travel. Because we were covering a lot of independent artists that not many people had heard, we decided to include a CD sampler with music from the pages of the magazine. And we struggled to find a tagline that would communicate the ethos we were trying to create, finally settling on “Signs of Life in Music, film & Culture.”
So, a half-decade in, we thought we’d celebrate our anniversary by toasting the truest Signs of Life in the music community—those who’ve used their platform as public figures to draw attention to a variety of important social causes.
Throughout its history, rock ’n’ roll has been derided as morally bankrupt, blamed for everything from the proliferation of drugs to the Columbine shootings. When it comes to social justice, though, rock has often led the way—it was on the vanguard of the peace and civil-rights movements, it raised money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia, it helped American family farmers, and, to this day, its practitioners often look after one another when tragedy strikes the music community.
In this issue, we’ve selected dozens of the artists we’re excited about—from the obvious (Bono and his decades of advocacy for Africa) to the obscure (Ryan Costello of The OaKs, who, after 9/11, sold everything he owned and flew to Kabul to see what he could do to help ease the suffering of the Afghan people); both international (Peter Gabriel’s human-rights group, Witness) and domestic (The Edge helping musicians in New Orleans replace instruments lost to Katrina flood waters).
Through the years, several issues have brought the heavyweights of pop music together to generate mass attention, beginning with George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and continuing through 2005’s Live 8 concerts to pressure the G8 countries to forgive Third World debt. This month, Al Gore and Kevin Wall have gathered Bon Jovi, Kanye West, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer and scores of others on all seven continents to raise awareness about global warming.
To be sure, celebrity activism is not without its downsides. Pop-culture personalities feed cycles of causes du jour which can drain support away from other, less sexy but worthy causes. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, the overwhelming generosity funneled through the Red Cross was offset by financial shortfalls among many other charities. And support for popular causes can be weak and short-term since the fuel is often stardom rather than knowledge of the issues and a passion for addressing them. Certainly, not all artists are well-versed on their causes. Even those who are tend to over-simplify the issues; it’s the nature of their platforms. (As T Bone Burnett wrote about preachers and politicians, “When you’re talking to that many people at one time, you’re bound to be lying to someone at some time.”) Occasionally, poor oversight of fund-raising efforts leads to significant waste, making headlines and fueling skepticism, as in the case of the recent Red campaign (Ad Age reported that, after Gap, Apple and Motorola spent an estimated $100 million on marketing, the campaign had only generated $18 million for charity). And then there’s always the risk of the pontificating overpowering the art.
Nonetheless, artists can be a significant force for good. The art itself can inspire, enlighten, motivate and otherwise bring life to the mundane—not by pedantic proselytizing but through skillful wordsmithing and innovative, passionate musicianship, examining the deeper issues of human existence and helping us relate to characters we’d never given much thought.
Beyond that, artists who lend support to social-justice issues do raise awareness and give voice to the voiceless. How many millions of people (including powerful legislators) would not know the extent of Africa’s runaway AIDS crisis and staggering debt without Bono and the artists involved with DATA? Peter Gabriel’s support of Witness and Amnesty International has helped spotlight human-rights abuses around the world and has won freedom for many. Millions of dollars have been raised (and put to good use) for hungry, homeless, persecuted and disadvantaged people the world over.
A sense of skepticism is healthy. And you can be forgiven if you think some artists are self-important blowhards. But, on the occasion of our fifth anniversary, we want to use our own voice to categorically reject the kind of ironic distance that’s poisoned so much of our culture. We say, yes, it’s OK to be enthusiastic about a band—even when millions of others love them. It’s OK to bleed a little and expose your innermost fears and insecurities and joys—even if that exposes you to derision and taunts of sentimentality, whining or overwrought sincerity. It’s OK to take risks with your art and claw your way to new grounds, ignoring the snorts of jaded critics who swear it’s all been done before.
And, yes, despite all the drawbacks and pitfalls, it’s OK to want to change the world—even, especially, when all looks hopeless and futile. We celebrate artists lending their voice to worthy causes and attempting to make their communities and their world better places. In fits and starts, we can all make a difference, regardless of the size of our platform. Though there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, 18th and 19th-century abolitionists freed thousands, and because of this, millions have opportunities their ancestors never did. Polio has been all but eradicated. Northern Ireland is relatively calm, Germany is reunified, and most of Europe exists in peace with its border countries. There will always be suffering and evil in this world. That is not the point. The point is that we can change some things. We can refuse to go gently into the night, kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.
Can rock save the world? Probably not. Can rock change the world? Unequivocally, yes. For better and worse, it always has been a powerful force for change, and we celebrate those working to improve the human condition. Cynicism be damned.
For us, that’s going to mean partnering with our new friends putting on The Concert to End Slavery (p. 58). We’ve been shaken to our core by the stories of those 27 million people, many of them children, who are still in captivity, whether trapped in rice plantations in the Dominican Republic, brothels in Thailand, rebel army camps in Uganda or a restaurant in San Francisco. To that end, our first Live From Paste CD will be released this fall, with some of our favorite tracks recorded at the Paste office and our various parties over the last five years. All profits from the CD will go to David Batstone’s Not For Sale organization to combat slavery throughout the globe. Hopefully we will see many of those currently enslaved people freed from their bondage and suffering.
This issue of Paste will be our first printed on partially post-consumer recycled paper, and we’ve moved from the petroleum-based CD sampler sleeves to paper, which we hope will also make for easier referencing. As John Mayer suggests in his “Light Green” manifesto (p. 54), there are small steps we can all take to make a collective difference. And if you’re not going to save this copy for your collection, please recycle it; don’t throw it away.
Finally, there are links throughout this issue to sites where you can learn more about many of the causes espoused by the artists in these pages. For a full reference guide, visit PasteMagazine.com/CanRockSaveTheWorld.
It’s been a special five years for all of us at Paste. We made a leap of faith believing there were others out there who cared about discovering new music and film, and you’ve exceeded our wildest dreams.