On Tuesday and Wednesday, April 24 & 25, 2007, American Idol hosted a much anticipated benefit during their weekly air-times, entitled “Idol Gives Back.” The well-advertised campaign was designed with the intention of raising funds for various charitable organizations, including Save the Children, America's Second Harvest, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Children’s Health Fund, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, Malaria No More, Nothing But Nets, Save the Children, and UNICEF.
The benefit hosted appearances by such comedians as Ben Stiller and Jack Black with
performances by Kelly Clarkson, Rascal Flats, Earth Wind & Fire, Annie Lennox, Celine Dion, Josh Groban (accompanied by the African Children's Choir), and of course, the Idols themselves. Hosted by Ryan Seacrest and Ellen Degeneres, the two-part evenings’ festivities were sure to be a guaranteed hit.
And amidst the throng of lights, costumes, performances, and comedy routines, video clips of the people said to be benefiting from the fundraiser were aired: Paula Abdul visiting children in a California Boys & Girls Club, Randy Jackson taking a trip to Louisiana to visit victims of Katrina, and probably most memorable, Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell's visit to Africa to visit victims of Malaria and HIV/AIDS.
The video footage of the duo's trip to Africa was typical. It showcased impoverished communities, over-crowded huts, hungry orphans, and sick mothers. And of course, no Africa benefit would be complete without the close-up of an African child with flies on his face. Perhaps most dramatic was Seacrest's interview with a tearful 12-year-old orphan raising his younger siblings, or Simon Cowell carrying a woman dying of AIDS and placing her in the back seat of a truck to get her to a hospital.
At the conclusion of each dramatic video clip on Wednesday night, the audience’s focus was brought back into one of two massive Los Angeles concert halls to enjoy either a performance, or the sprinkled-out results of the previous evening's nation-wide vote, while the six remaining contestants anxiously waited to see who would be booted from the show this week. (As it turned out, at the end of the show, Seacrest proclaimed all six contestants “safe.” Smiling, he said to the camera, “We couldn't kick anyone off on a charity night!”)
Now, let me say for the record, that I am all in favor of fundraising. I think any effort that raises money for causes such as these should be applauded, and I hope the money raised this week will be put to good use. However, as with all western efforts to provide foreign aid, “Idol Gives Back” was filled with the same arrogance and condescension reminiscent of Geldof and Bono's “Live 8.”
The camera shots moving from clips of poverty in Africa and then back to the concert hall, the make-up, jewelry and pazazz was dead-on: totally symbolic of the manner in which western celebrities travel into the so-called “Third World,” singing songs of philanthropy, only to return, days later, to their lives of excess and extravagance in the west. Looking at the stage, one couldn't help but wonder what the results could have been if even a portion of the evening's wardrobe budget had been given to any of these charities. The one notable moment of the night was when Ellen Degeneres announced her personal donation of $100,000, issuing a challenge to other celebrities to do the same. Yet where is the balance?
Why is it that celebrities are always the ones to speak for the so-called victims? Why were no African intellectuals called upon to speak on behalf of their countries' issues? Why were no African performers (aside from the African Children's Choir) invited to perform or to speak to the issues of their own continent?
Additionally, with all due respect to the funds raised, all of this benefit talk and charity work fails to address the causes; it merely attempts to treat the symptoms. I would be interested to see a celebrity benefit addressing the reasons for poverty as opposed to simply asking for donations, addressing the bleeding hearts through tragic tales and cliché images.
At the end of the day, “Idol Gives Back” was a successful benefit. And at any rate, it was great to see corporations such as The Coca-Cola Company, Ford Motor Company, AT&T, Allstate, Exxon Mobil, and most especially, News Corp, supporting these causes. (Each pledged a certain amount of money – for example, 10 cents – for each vote cast by the television audience on Tuesday night). As of the 1 May airing of "American Idol," a reported $70 million was raised, and it is probably safe to assume that some good will come of that money. But as we look to the future, a new brand of fundraising needs to emerge: one in which the right questions are asked and the people in question themselves are directly involved.
Jill A. Bolstridge
Managing Editor, riceNpeas.com
1st May 2007