OOh, no. Not another benefit album. One filled with the songs of a dead icon, a classic rocker, no less.
Cynical, knee-jerk reactions might be understandable. After all, it seems like every rock star and member of the "Hollywood liberal elite" wants to save the world these days. I mean, who does this Bono character think he is, anyway? Rock stars are so pompous. Can't they all just shut up and sing?
Well, most of them do, actually. But the worthwhile among them don't.
The prevailing mind-set (at least in this country) suggests that popular music is entertainment, and politics is politics. Never the twain shall meet, nor should it. But for 50 years, the most significant popular music has had at least one big toe in the pool of dissent, rebellion and countercultural leanings. It's perhaps ironic that to be rebellious today is to have an informed opinion that you're willing to share, whether it fits the party line or not. Time was, being rebellious meant sticking your head in the sand and partying like a rock star.
For the 22 artists who saw fit to contribute to "Instant Karma," partying like a rock star while genocide rages in Darfur, an impoverished region of the Western Sudan, wasn't a wholly conscionable idea. Elements of the population might think it trite that pop stars feel they can make some sort of difference in an area where politicians have made next to none. They're entitled to that opinion. Folks who believe that global warming is some sort of left-wing conspiracy are entitled to their opinion as well.
Meanwhile, in Darfur, opinions are a luxury millions can't afford. Since 2003, when the government of the Sudan hired the Janjiwad -- mercenary militias already responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, according to Amnesty International -- Darfur has been a hell on Earth. The battle is over land -- who owns it, who has the right to pull its resources from the ground, who lives on it. As has always been the case in human affairs, the wealthy want the best land for themselves. But what if millions of poor live on that land?
For the Janjiwad, the solution to these problems lies in genocide. Like horsemen of the apocalypse, they tear into towns, kill as many of the inhabitants as possible, rape the women and burn down the village on their way out of town. This isn't hyperbole with a political purpose. It's plain, documented fact.
A collection of songs will not end such heart-rending conflict. Nor will empty political gestures. Raising consciousness, and money, is what pop stars can and should do.
"Instant Karma" finds a diverse lineup of mega-stars interpreting the songs of John Lennon across the span of two discs, proceeds of which are earmarked for Amnesty International's efforts to end, or at least ease, the suffering of the voiceless, powerless and impoverished in Darfur.
It's almost beside the point whether or not the record is any good. Happily, it is. In fact, most of it is downright inspired.
There are no Beatles tunes here. All of the material covered here -- by artists ranging from U2 to the Black Eyed Peas, Aerosmith to Avril Lavigne, R.E.M. to Matisyahu, Green Day to Corrine Bailey Rae -- has been culled from Lennon's post-Beatles solo career. That may be why Yoko Ono has given her enthusiastic blessing to the project and provided a brief essay in its liner notes.
Lennon's solo career may not have been as groundbreaking, in a strictly musical sense, as his Beatles work. What the man's '70s music lost in musical experimentation it gained in emotional heft, however. Scanning the songs interpreted here reveals a body of work unmatched in its ability to marry the particular and subjective to the universal. The songs are cries directly from the heart and soul -- for personal salvation, for love, for forgiveness, and for at least the beginnings of that most nebulous of concepts: peace.
Peace, the word, has been co-opted by politicians to mean something quite different from what Lennon imagined. For him, peace was a state of mind to be aspired to, a series of decisions and commitments made in small ways by small people every day of their lives, a willingness to strive for what we're told, and shown, is impossible. It's a willful naivete, but it's one that can have very real consequences. To hear Lennon's best songs is to feel that these metaphysical ideas are as real as the chair you're sitting on. That was his gift as a songwriter, and it's still his gift to us 27 years after his death.
"Instant Karma," to its immense credit, finds some of the most popular musicians in the world rising to Lennon's mandate, both musical and philosophical. Very rarely does a "tribute album" play from start to finish without at least a handful of cringe-inducing moments popping up, points in the program where artists prove themselves unworthy of tackling the material of the writer they're supposed to be paying tribute to. That doesn't happen here. Even the queen of oversinging and melodrama, Christina Aguilera, brings grace and dignity to her delivery of Lennon's "Mother."
Surely, Lennon's music brings out the best in artists, just as it continues to speak to the best parts of us as listeners. That would make him both happy and proud.
Information on "Instant Karma" can be found at www.instantkarma.org. Visit Jeff Miers' blog, Miers on Music, at www.buffalonews.com