Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Bono Faces the Music
If there were ever an outdoor music fest that kept close to its hippie roots, it would have to be Glastonbury. Since 1970, the festival held in England's picturesque Somerset region has hosted some of the most forward-thinking acts of their time. Moreover, the fest has always maintained that it's not enough to dream of a better world, but strove to make it a reality. Its founder, Michael Eavis, ran for parliament on a left Labour ticket in the '90s before urging people to vote Green in protest of the Iraq War. In the 1980s, Glasto openly allied itself with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and two of its stages have long been owned and operated by Greenpeace and Britain's Trades Union Congress.
Leave it to Bono to ruin all of this. As always, he's playing dumb about the repression that was handed out to protect him. Still, it seems that lately, for all his attempts to paint himself a man of peace, protest dogs him almost everywhere. And while Glastonbury has long had to negotiate the treacherous waters of being a major music festival in a cutthroat world of commerce, this little stunt seems to have put it over (if you'll pardon the pun) the edge.
It happened on Friday, the last night of the festival, during U2's headlining set. A group of activists were roughed up by security, their materials confiscated. Among the group was Claudia Graham, had her finger broken by one of the guards. Their crime? Inflating a 20 foot banner that read "U pay tax 2?"
The activists were members of Art Uncut, a spin-off of UK Uncut. The past several months have seen UK Uncut pull off some of the most visible direct actions in Britain against the country's worst corporate tax-cheaters: Vodafone, Barclay's bank, Topshop and many others. While the UK's Tory-led government has exacted grinding austerity against the Kingdom's working classes, these activists have quite publicly and rightly asked why the upper one percent have been let off the hook.
Bono most-likely knew it was only a matter of time until he and U2 were targeted. In a defense of the Glasto protest appearing in The Guardian, UK Uncut's Phillip Goff laid out the "case against Bono" rather well:
"In 2006 U2 Ltd [the band's operating company] moved most of its tax affairs to Holland, seemingly in response to the Irish government's decision to cap the tax-free exemption on royalties at €225,000 (before this, artists in Ireland were not obliged to pay any tax on royalties). Our concern is that when individuals and corporations "shop around" different countries for the best tax deal, this puts pressure on governments all round the world to lower their tax rates, which results in an ever-dwindling proportion of profits going to governments to spend on schools, hospitals and public services. Given the financial difficulties in the group's native country right now, any tax revenue denied to Ireland hurts badly."
Of course, nobody has credibly been able to call Bono "progressive" for quite some time. Times like these have a way of kicking up dirt on even the most pristine public figures, and the U2 front-man is no exception. Indeed, as far as symbols go, it's hard to find a better whipping boy than Bono himself. Here's a man who prattles on about "solving poverty" while refusing to pay his fair share into the public coffer; who makes sanctimonious calls for peace while hobnobbing with war criminals like Bush and Blair; who publicly maintains a "love" for his fans while daring to charge outrageous prices for tickets and demanding that "music pirates" be prosecuted.
Among left-wing music fans, "Bono-watching" has become something of a sport. Dave Marsh and Lee Ballinger of Rock & Rap Confidential have both been rightfully relentless. Irish journalist and civil rights activist Eamonn McCann has been similarly merciless toward his countrymen's hypocritical practices. Signs reading "make Bono pay taxes" have emerged on Irish anti-cuts marches.
In all of these instances, Bono himself has remained arrogantly mum (for example, backing out of Marsh's challenge to a public debate on the nature of the "One" campaign). There is something different about the events of Glastonbury, however. First, there's the festival itself. The swiftly rising ticket-prices or corporate logos notwithstanding, this is a fest whose progressive legacy is well-known among many attendees. Little wonder then that activists feel emboldened to raise this kind of action and call out the contradiction of U2's mere presence at Glasto.
Then there's how much the world in general is changing. Eighteen months ago, I discussed with a fellow activist of Irish descent whether the time was ripe for pickets at U2's shows; he remained understandably skeptical. Now, however, we stand on the shoulders of rebellions in Britain and Spain, Egypt and South Africa. As politicians of both parties push austerity, the UK Uncut model has made its way to this side of the pond. It would seem, for lack of a better term, that people are mad as hell, and they're just not going to take it anymore.
For his own part, Bono has arrogantly dismissed the protests and insisted he wasn't behind the protesters' brutal treatment. Speaking with the Daily Mail the day after, Bono insisted declared that "I’m all for protests. I’ve been protesting all of my life. I’m glad they got the chance to have their say. But, as it happens, what they’re protesting about is wrong."
Bono didn't say when he had last protested for anything; most readers most likely won't remember either. Likewise, he didn't bother saying exactly what about their protest was wrong. He didn't attempt defending the group's use of tax havens or comment on whether the rich should pay their fair share.
But then, folks of his income bracket rarely have to explain themselves. Recent reports indicate that the members of U2 are the highest paid artists in the world; last year raking in as much as $160 million. The band's holding company employs untold amounts of labor and cuts every possible corner to keep itself profitable. If Bono seemed deliberately vague, then it's probably because he hasn't known true accountability for quite some time
That, however, may be ready to change very soon. Bono may not have been a fan of the protest, but judging from the cheers that went up after the balloon was inflated, thousands of others were.
It comes down to a matter of sides: on one stands a man who fancies himself the people's rock star, but when push comes to shove is only backed up by the scads of money he's hellbent on holding onto; on the other legions of pissed off working people sick of being screwed over. For years we've heard that music isn't a place for politics, but more and more, the chorus coming from the rabble is "why not?"
In the end, it's about a lot more than one rock band; it's about a system. If Bono one day has to face the music, it's because his ilk have finally felt the pressure from the rest of us.
First published at SOCIARTS.