EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's hard to imagine a better setting for Live Earth, a.k.a. the Concerts For a Climate in Crisis, than the petrochemical corridor of the New Jersey Turnpike. Riding the train from Penn Station to Secaucus Junction (short of walking, bicycling, or riding a horse through the Lincoln Tunnel it was the only responsible way to get to Giants Stadium), the view out the window was a gray panorama of smokestacks and utility towers.
This has to be the ungreenest place on earth. For eight hours on Saturday it was the U S launch site for what Al Gore, the driving force behind Live Earth, hopes will be a worldwide movement to reverse global warming and save the planet.
It was also a monster concert, a well-lubricated pageant divvied into 20-minute musical chunks with reunited rockers the Police and the Smashing Pumpkins, emo darlings Fall Out Boy and Taking Back Sunday, urban stars Kanye West and Alicia Keys, singer-songwriters John Mayer and KT Tunstall, and a dozen more. Plenty of useful information was imparted during short films and impassioned testimonials, but the spotlight was on the pop stars, who are generally not known as beacons of environmental consciousness.
There are exceptions. Dave Matthews sang the praises of cloth diapers and his Prius in addition to the apt cautionary tale "Too Much." Tunstall, midway through a home renovation, is installing solar panels and sheeps - wool insulation, although her admonition to the crowd to "eat more soil or something" seemed an ill-considered bit of advice.
But the image of Ludacris rhyming about gas-guzzling SUVs under the Live Earth banner was almost comical. And then there's Madonna, who headlined Live Earth's London show at Wembley Stadium, one of nine concerts on seven continents. Madge has an annual carbon imprint a hundred times greater than that of the average human thanks to her nine homes, fleet of cars, and the exhaust-spewing army of buses, semis, and jets used on tours.
Still, to complain about the performers' shortcomings as environmentalists is to miss the point. They weren't enlisted as role models. They were there to deliver an audience -- 2 billion strong if estimates are accurate, via television, satellite radio, and the Internet -- and odds are good most of them are roughly as eco-enlightened as NBC new s anchor Ann Curry. Prior to her primetime interview with Gore, Curry confessed to a small group of reporters that she had bought her first compact fluorescent light bulb earlier that day.
Which is to say we're late to the game and we've got to start somewhere. That's what's so annoying about the criticism being leveled at Live Earth, ranging from the energy consumed and waste generated by the event itself to the vagueness of its goals. It seems that the potential to influence nearly a third of the world's population to engage the issue and change their behavior outweighs the negative impact, and given what's at stake that's a leap of faith worth taking.
Nobody expects Live Earth to solve the problem in a day. But let's not forget that there's a reason musicians are called upon to share stages with political leaders and social activists -- so often, in fact, that "cause-concert fatigue" has become a bona fide syndrome. Sometimes the most powerful awareness-raising tool isn't a rally but the luminous sound of Alicia Keys wondering, in Marvin Gaye's words, about "this overcrowded land/ how much more abuse from man can she stand?"
"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," Gaye's paean to a sick planet, was a popular choice at Live Earth. Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend sang it in London, and other artists tailored their set lists to the issue, as well. "How can you say you're not responsible?" was the provocative opening salvo from the Police, who kicked off their show-closing set with "Driven to Tears" and finished with "Message in a Bottle," where the familiar refrain of "sending out an S.O.S." echoed Live Earth's motto: Save Our Selves.
Kelly Clarkson, perhaps too involved in her own career tribulations to dig up a relevant song, performed with a large band that included string and horn sections -- an affordable luxury on the only gig she didn't cancel this summer. What I want to know is, why didn't she sing a big soulful duet with Melissa Etheridge, whose fiercely topical set included "I Need to Wake Up," written for the Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth"?
Where were the cool collaborations that would have made Live Earth memorable for its once-in-a-lifetime musical moments as well as its pressing message? Kudos to Keys and Keith Urban for their weirdly thrilling duet on "Gimme Shelter," and the Police for inviting West and Mayer onstage for the concert's finale.
And shame on the naysayers griping about the politics of hypocr is y or the value of staging an event of this scope without a measurable outcome. Bob Geldof, organizer of Live Aid and Live 8, told a Dutch newspaper that "I would only organize [Live Earth] if I could go onstage and announce concrete environmental measures from the American presidential candidates, Congress or major corporations. They haven't got those guarantees, so it's just an enormous pop concert."
I saw a drunk middle-aged man toss his beer bottle in a recycling bin for the first time. Multiply that by 2 billion. That's a measurable outcome.