When doing some of the last bits of research for my Sting book – I have been pondering on why he received so much criticism off the press for his stance on human rights protest. Before I get around to Sting – here is a comment directed at Peter Gabriel after he had just completed the ‘Conspiracy of Hope Tour’ – with Sting, in 1986.
To suggest that anyone is here to further their own careers would be the worst form of cynicism. But by the time this tour is over, Gabriel should be a major star – these performances will expose him to the masses he has yet failed to reach, and his musical loquaciousness and fiery performance will gain him scores of new fans. While many people will leave these shows with the urge to send $25 to Amnesty, suspicions are that far more will first choose to spend their money on Gabriel’s phenomenal new album
In 1993, another article in the UK national press, reflected on how the national press had slated Sting over the years up to that point.
Sting’s announcement that he was setting up a foundation to raise public awareness of the devastation of Brazil’s rain forests, in particular the Xingu Park, an area of native land the size of Switzerland, gave them [the press] the impetus to wound. He was a do-gooder, a dilettante; worst of all, a bore… “What a career move,” cynics hissed, as he introduced heads of state and chat-show hosts to Chief Raoni, leader of the Kayapo tribe, whom they would remember more for the plate that distended his bottom lip than for the dignity of his pleas for the protection of his people and their environment (The Times, 1993)
This narrative was continued seven years later in the Sunday Times
The trouble is, though, since Sting decided to promote his new CD by sewing it into the bottom lip of an Amazonian tribesman, singing about trees has been seen as a bit uncool (Sunday Times, 2000)
What is interesting, is that this criticism can be seen to cross over to the music itself – not only fund raising concerts and charitable organisations. It is well documented that Sting’s close friend Paul Simon received criticism when he released Graceland in 1986.The Album’s sophisticated musicianship, post-modern combination of styles, use of jazz musicians, and inter-cultural cooperation introduced many listeners to the sounds of South Africa for the first time, with Simon even including “revenues from the album’s promotional tour to support charitable projects in Africa and in African-American communities. Despite these honourable intensions, Simon, and by default the album received criticism for complying with hegemonic western power relations. Concisely speaking, Simon and his representatives were deemed still to have the controlling power in terms of who had access to factors such as marketing, finance, technology and intellectual property.
This begs the question, do Sting’s songs such as ‘They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)’ and ‘Desert Rose’ de contextualise the music and traditions of oppressed countries, or do they do as Sting intended – raise awareness of oppressed people and the case of ‘Desert Rose’ – music that has limited commercial outlet to be given a global presence? Protest song in both live and recorded format can also be considered a symbolic act of solidarity with the countries or localities represented, which in the case of Sting, is usually backed up with fund raising initiatives and personal appearances – making his protest gesture not just theoretical, but practical.
I am interested in any thoughts anyone has about this – why do artists such as Sting receive criticism from the press for fund raising and engaging in protest?
Interesting post thank you. I think it’s partly to do with what the social psychologists call social distance: if Sting had concentrated his energies on say disadvantaged Geordies over the years or another social group that he is socially close to both racially and ethnically, then his publics would find that easier to understand because of his much greater proximity to those groups in social distance. His concern for developing world and disadvantaged ‘far Others’ from the white Anglo-American experience I think appears socially distant from both his, and his audience’s own white, Anglo-American imaginary. This greater social distance is potentially harder to understand for his audiences because of the perceived Otherness of his causes. That’s one idea but I think clearly it’s more complex of course, and we have an extremely cynical press in the UK also which struggles to comprehend altruism in any straightforward manner (probably with good reason in relation to many celebrities other than Sting). It is the authenticity of his altruism that is usually questioned, and I think that’s partly to do with social distance and because in the world of celebrity and music, because it’s so unusual.
All the best
Thanks for this Simon. Oddly enough – social distance is something I talk about in the book – but more to do with the perceived distance between him and his audience when he is singing. For example his early work with The Police was often delivered at a ‘public’ distance, while his later work is far more ‘intermit’. The irony of course is in his later work he has far more control over the production process 🙂 Thinking about it though, what the public don’t know is he has fundraised in Newcastle for many many years – before the Rainforest stuff in fact. This of course is difficult to criticise – as you say are press love a good negative story. Hope you guys are well up there. Speak soon, Paul
I believe that people have a tendency to distrust the intentions of multi millionaire artists, and we all know the way the press work and I think in Stings case he courts it to a certain extent by playing up to the pretentious muso image foisted on him. i think it might also be the fact that the causes tend to be global rather than local, Stings friend Bruce Springsteen does loads and loads of charitable work mainly for local or American causes, but never gets slated in the same way. I have always been a big fan of his music from The Police days and I only recently read his autobiography which changed my perception of him as a person.
Cheers Steve – really interesting points.