As much as pop culture loves music videos featuring 200 celebrities singing one line each, we're surprisingly lax about actually making sure that charity songs and concerts really do some good. We've told you before about how Live Aid ended up inadvertently helping Ethiopia's awful government, and now we're here to ruin even more of your faith in humanity. It's ... it's just kind of what we do here.
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Back in January 2010, all the major networks and cable channels in America hosted the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, a star-studded event meant to help Haiti recover from one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history. Many famous actors, musicians, and performers attended, and also Kid Rock was there.
A hefty chunk of the funds gathered by the event went to Yele Haiti, a charity organization created by former Fugee Wyclef Jean. Between that and other benefit concerts and public appearances, Wyclef ended up with $16 million that he claimed would go to the people of Haiti. Well, Wyclef and his family are from Haiti, so technically, he was telling the truth.
Yele Haiti spent almost half a million dollars on "food and beverages" (for themselves) and $630,000 went to Wyclef's brother-in-law for various construction projects that were never realized. Yele Haiti did finish at least one building, though: their own headquarters, which cost another cool half mil, and is now abandoned. Meanwhile, they announced that the organization would give $3,000 a month to an orphanage so the kids could buy food, and then they cut off all support a few months later, once the good press had died down. Wyclef also billed the charity itself for his first-class travel when he attended charity shows. But hey, at least he got to see some pretty good gigs: Yele Haiti once paid $100,000 to hire the Wyclef Jean to play at a benefit show! Yes, the guy from The Fugees!
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Pink Floyd's The Wall is the single most popular rock opera ever created specifically for stoners to fall asleep to. Even after frontman Roger Waters left the band, people still hounded him to play The Wall live again, to which he replied that he'd do it only if the Berlin Wall came down.
Then, in 1989, this happened:
via Wiki Commons
When the Germans united Berlin, Waters was asked to keep his word, so he figured he might as well make the most of it. He began planning a spectacular The Wall revival concert that would take place where the Berlin Wall once stood. All profits would go to a charity recently launched by a WWII veteran, the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief. There was one caveat, though: This applied only to the profits -- the money left after the show was paid for -- and Waters wanted it to be the most lavish show this side of literally everything U2 does. For starters, the concert involved dozens of stagehands building an actual wall between the musicians and the audience, which they'd topple at the end:
Waters also hired numerous vehicles, including a limo, a fleet of bikes, an ambulance, and a helicopter:
There were enormous, animatronic balloons that loomed over the proceedings:
And finally there's a massive Nazi-style rally with a full orchestra:
The cost of the concert was originally estimated to be $6.5 million, but it wound up being around $10 million. Shockingly, a bizarre, themed rock opera did not profit in excess of that. The total gross of the concert, after all the bills were paid, was minus $1 million dollars. The project lost so much money that the Fund closed a few years later (sadly, no Memorial Fund for the Memorial Fund was instituted).
Before Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie let us know that we were the world, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure asked us whether we knew if they knew it was Christmas. The original version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" from 1984 was released to give relief to African countries suffering from mass starvation, as well as to showcase the various applications for hairspray in the '80s.
In 2014, 30 years after the song kick-started the whole charity superband genre, Geldof gathered another bunch of big names for a new version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" -- one intended to help countries affected by the Ebola epidemic. However, Africa has changed a lot since the 1980s. The lyrics to this song, on the other hand, have not (or not enough, anyway):
Depicting modern Liberia and other West African countries as no different than Ethiopia in 1984 managed to piss off a whole lot of people who actually live there. And with good reason: The "Africa is an endless death valley" stereotypes have very real, very negative economic consequences. One British-Ghanaian rapper stepped down from the project after seeing the lyrics, while a British aid worker who actually survived being infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone called them "cringeworthy."
So what did Geldof say to this man who had front-line knowledge of the culture and the suffering that this disease has caused within it? He told him to relax and said anyone who criticizes the song can "fuck off." Geldof helpfully explained, "It's a pop song, not a doctoral thesis," and basically fell back on the "Christmas songs are supposed to suck!" argument.
Oh, and Liberia (the country most harshly affected by the epidemic) has an 87 percent Christian population ... so who, exactly, are they reminding that it's Christmas? They also invented the calendar. They should be reminding us.
Charity concerts have existed since way back in the 19th century, and one of the earliest and most successful proprietors was Hungarian composer/conductor Franz Liszt, who looked like the villain in a Die Hard movie ... and kinda acted like one, too.
In 1838, a flood hit Liszt's native Budapest, destroying three-quarters of the city's buildings. According to his own recollection, as soon as Liszt heard about the disaster, he felt a "surge of emotions" that made him exclaim "in patriotic zeal" and rush to Vienna to throw a series of concerts for the flood victims. As his most famous biography tells it, Liszt "gave eight concerts which raised the colossal sum of 24,000 gulden, the largest single donation the Hungarians received from a private source." There's only one problem with this: It's all bullshit. That's a fairly major problem, as problems go.
First of all, Liszt had actually been planning his Vienna tour for a while, so he pulled the whole "patriotic call" thing out of his ass.
Second, only the first of the Vienna concerts raised money for the flood victims (netting 1,700 gulden) -- the remaining seven were purely for the benefit of Liszt's bank account, as he milked the good publicity for all it was worth. What did he do with the other 22,300 gulden, then? Well, in a letter from that trip, he wrote: "I have made no friend here, but still have many courtiers. My room is never empty. I am the man a la mode." So, thousands of wool condoms, we're guessing.
The Veronicas are an Australian pop/rock duo of twin sisters and, unfortunately, the worst thing to happen to a young fan during the last days of his life. James Hempenstall was a 14-year-old with an inoperable brain tumor whose dream was to organize a charity concert for other sick kids. With his family's help, James put together a musical event called Beneath the Stars: Songs of Hope and Joy, and several acts agreed to perform for free -- except for whoever Shannon Noll is, and The Veronicas, who insisted on a $30,000 upfront deposit before the family could announce them for the bill. James' dad borrowed $20,000 to cover the deposit. Sadly, the concert sold only around 200 tickets and had to be canceled, at which point the family asked the Veronicas' management for the deposit back ... and were told, "[patronizing laughter]."
The money had already been spent on travel arrangements, you see. As a result, the Beneath the Stars Foundation was left $50,000 in debt, with no way to recuperate their losses. The Veronicas did invite James to a concert in Brisbane as a consolation prize -- hopefully one whose tickets cost 50 grand apiece -- but he couldn't go because his dad had to take a job in a cattle station. For some reason.
James passed away a year later, in 2008, three weeks before his last wish, a revitalized version of the concert (sans The Veronicas), was about to happen. We realize it was probably all the doing of their management, as even James' father says The Veronicas were "total sweethearts," but still ... it's like we've been saying all along: Never turn your back on twins.
Scott Elizabeth Baird can be found on Twitter: @ScottEBaird.
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