Last year's 12.12.12 benefit concert for the victims of Sandy came packed with memorable moments: Pete Townshend changing the lyrics of "Baba O'Riley" to decry a "Sandy wasteland." Adam Sandler transforming Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into a irreverent anthem of defiance (“Sandy, screw ya/We’ll all get through ya”). Paul McCartney turning over the finale to Alicia Keys, who led the crowd in a rousing version of “Empire State of Mind.”
But the strongest parts of the all-star spectacle were the segments showing the fresh devastation wrought by the storm through the weary eyes of victims, many of them only a few miles from Madison Square Garden.
The televised concert, filmed for a movie to be released Friday, succeeded in not only raising a reported $30 million in ticket sales alone, but in striking an appropriate balance between entertainment and showcasing the reason the entertainers showed up.
That's the bittersweet byproduct of the music establishment having too many occasions to mount benefit concerts following natural disasters and other tragedies. Sadly, with the nearly unfathomable destruction wrought in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, there's yet another cause for the showbiz world to band together.
Top musicians can be a powerful positive force in raising money and awareness, while offering solidarity and comfort – even if in some cases, amid post-disaster chaos, it takes time for the message to get through. The ability to do good on a large scale has evolved and grown over the last four decades, from George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh to Bob Geldof’s Live Aid to 12.12.12. to Blake Shelton's fundraiser in the days after the tornado that tore through Moore, Okla., six months ago.
The concerts offer evidence of shared humanity, wrapped in the bonds of music – whether the show takes place near the tragedy scene or half a world away. The celebrity-packed events also provide a reminder of the responsibility that comes with fame at a time when too many folks are fixated on whether somebody twerked too much or lit up something resembling a joint on TV. Then again, the world would be a better place if the most we had to worry about were MTV live show antics.
There's a danger in benefit concerts becoming well-practiced affairs with repetition that threatens to inure audiences to the latest dire need. But at their best, the shows can inspire – delivering a modicum of solace and, hopefully, a spur to action.
As the next big fundraiser, little doubt, is being discussed, check out the trailer for “12.12.12,” whose proceeds will go to victims of Sandy:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.