By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 10:29 PM
OSLO -- Performing for Norwegian royalty, international dignitaries and thousands of alleged pop fans, Swedish disco sprite Robyn isn't just singing her chart-topping hit "Dancing on My Own." She's living it.
In platform boots with soles that appear to be made from blocks of Neapolitan ice cream, she stomps along to the song's enchanting pulse, twirling, twisting, punching the air. Six thousand onlookers remain frozen in their seats, gathered here at the Oslo Spektrum in the spirit of peace, love and a misunderstanding of how one is supposed to behave at a pop concert.
Your majesties, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, please don't be so peaceful. The Nobel Peace Prize Concert might be the most distinguished, most ambitious and most peculiar annual pop concert forged on Earth, but you're making it look like nap time.
Founded in 1994 to help promote the Nobel Peace Prize laureates and the causes they define, the concert has been controversial in Norway, where critics say the event trivializes the gravity of the award. But it still stands as the Nobel committee's most powerful publicity tool, and organizers argue that it helps send the laureates' messages to the planet's most distant corners.
As for the music, it consistently evaporates the boundaries of genre, geography, generation and, sometimes, taste. Along with Robyn, Saturday's lineup - celebrating jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo - included global jazz ambassador Herbie Hancock, hippie-soul singer India.Arie, "Slumdog Millionaire" composer A.R. Rahman, California cutie Colbie Caillat, British pop sensation Florence and the Machine and others. Like, Barry Manilow.
Sound familiar? This is the ultimate charity gig, one of those strange, Frankensteiny events that courageously attempts to put incompatible acts on the same stage in the name of universal fellowship. On this night in Oslo, Frankenstein is lucky enough to have his limbs stitched together with the charm of Anne Hathaway and the gravitas of her co-host, Denzel Washington.
So why does it feel so stiff in here? Concerts launched in the name of peace have been sprinkled into the pudding of popular music ever since 500,000 hairy young Americans gathered to see Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Sly Stone perform on Max Yasgur's farm in the summer of 1969.
The Peace Prize Concert is a far more sanitary affair than Woodstock - and it exists in an era where the definition of popular music has only grown messier. In a digital world where popular taste is quickly splintering, it's practically impossible to curate a bill of mass-appeal performers who make sense on the same stage. But maybe they don't have to make sense. Maybe they only have to coexist. Isn't that the definition of peace?
The horn section and the backup singers point fingers at each other. Somebody missed their cue. But the glitchy Friday sound check for neo-disco troupe Jamiroquai is hardly a concern to Odd Arvid Stromstad.
He's been the executive producer of the Peace Prize Concert since its inception - an incredibly coolheaded man who saw the Sex Pistols play their only Oslo gig back in '77. In other words, he's seen total chaos make perfect sense. Now he tries to make it happen in the Spektrum every December.
"It's like bringing different parts of the world together on one stage and [forcing] it to work together," Stromstad says backstage. "Yeah, it's difficult."
It became more difficult in 1997 when Stromstad had the good fortune of booking Mariah Carey. Networks picked up the concert and it was telecast in more than 100 countries, quickly teaching the organizers the value of big, big names. Oprah Winfrey hosted the 2004 concert alongside Tom Cruise, and performers have included Tina Turner, Elton John, Beyonce, Willie Nelson, Santana, Rihanna, Diana Ross and Paul McCartney - all tough acts to get free. (After McCartney's 2001 performance, Stromstad says the former Beatle was so touched by the audience's response he decided to start touring again.)
The concert has settled into a formula in recent years. "We have a famous host and hostess," says Norwegian Nobel Committee Secretary Geir Lundestad. "We have some top American and British, Anglo-American stars; we have a few stars from around the world, some Norwegian and Swedish. Maybe it has become too predictable."
It was Lundestad's idea to create the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, so he's the one who takes the most criticism. And this year there's a lot of pressure to match the tenor of Friday's solemn award ceremony. Silenced by his government, Liu's campaign for human rights and free speech in China felt louder than ever this week. Chinese officials called on allies to boycott the ceremony and put the laureate's friends and family under house arrest so they couldn't accept the award on his behalf. At Friday's ceremony, the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma was symbolically placed in an empty chair.
"It's serious, it's solemn, we had the ceremony, the empty chair," Lundestad says. "But we're also celebrating. It's a day of joy."
This year's performers arrive at Saturday's news conference well-versed in all things Liu.
Beneath the Radisson Hotel's lavish chandeliers, they thoughtfully answer questions from Scandinavian journalists who flub their names ("Anne Halloway," "India.Aria"). Jay Kay of Jamiroquai criticizes China for hosting the Olympics, while Hancock speaks about the culture gap between East and West. Hathaway, who wept at Friday's awards ceremony, wins the room instantly. "I'm only here today because people have shown me the respect of human rights every single day of my life," she says.
"That was a great answer!" Manilow blurts out.
"Barry Manilow likes me!" Hathaway declares over the laughs. "I like you too, Barry."
Everyone here likes Barry, a man so honored to have been invited to Oslo, he says he "would have walked here."
But later, in a private interview, Washington and Hathaway explain how tough it is to fete the man who can't be here, Liu Xiaobo. "How hard is it for him?" Washington wonders. "It's not about us. It's about him. . . . It's music. We're actors. That's good and cute, but the reality for him is he's not here and nor can he be. So we'll do the best we can for him and his wife and celebrate his life, his struggle."
And while everyone is here for a Bigger Purpose, this is still a dry run for Hathaway, who will be co-hosting the Oscars for the first time in February. "When you look at something like the Oscars, which I couldn't be happier to be hosting, that is such a celebration of our industry," she says. "But this? I don't think anyone involved at the Oscars will be offended when I say this is a bit more important."
Seven hours later, fans glide into the arena in suits and furs, sipping white wine and golden beer from plastic cups. They politely find their seats, emitting a powerful smell. The designer fragrance commercials that dominate Norwegian television are apparently quite effective.
Five minutes until showtime and a talk show host named Anne Lindmo takes the stage. "We have a lot of people in the audience who look like they're waiting for a bus," she says. Tasked with loosening up the crowd before the cameras start rolling, she offers these words of advice: "I'm going to encourage you to clap, to shake your moneymakers and your honey-buns and whatever body parts you like to shake."
Three massive cylinders hang from the rafters, hovering over the stage like a giant upside-down game of skeeball. The lights dim and Norwegian singer Sivert Hoyem opens the show in his somber, solemn baritone. Cue Hathaway and Washington - he in all black, she in a sparkling gown that reveals glimpses of her porcelain legs as she strides to the center of the stage.
He praises the laureate and she introduces Florence and the Machine. Saturday night, singer Florence Welch's machine consists of a harpist, a dozen backup singers and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, who would accompany all of the artists here tonight - but none to this degree of spectacularity. The minimal take on her breakout hit "Dog Days Are Over" is gorgeous and goosebumpy and very austere. Are we having fun yet?
Caillat gives a smiley performance, Hoyem returns for another bellow, India.Arie sings a tune about acceptance. There's a video of congratulations to Liu from 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Hathaway gets some serious Oscar training by reading long excerpts from the Chinese constitution off the teleprompter.
When Jamiroquai takes the stage, a concert finally begins to emerge from the band's propulsive rhythms and its singer's Stevie Wonderish loop-de-loops. The audience tries to join in but fails to clap on the downbeat, making the band's eternally funky "Virtual Insanity" feel like a military march.
In the greenroom during intermission, Hathaway seems up, up, up. "The audience is a-MAY-zing!" she exclaims to an admirer as handlers armed with irons and hair curlers prowl around her. Across the room, Manilow poses for a few snapshots with Rahman's backup singers. Everyone here still likes Barry.
After the break, Robyn gives an exhilarating performance, but the crowd remains catatonic. During a jazzy read of John Lennon's "Imagine," Hancock shows the audience how to clap on the downbeat - true musical diplomacy at work.
Then comes Manilow's headlining set. His coif is an amber porcupine, his outfit is more sequins than fabric, and he sways to "Can't Smile Without You" as if slaloming in the Alps of his mind. During the pep of "Copacabana," everything changes. The crowd finally rises to its feet. Moneymakers and honey-buns miraculously begin to shake.
In a world forever striving for peace, could Barry Manilow be the answer?
After a spirited ensemble finale of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," the artists hustle backstage and down the stairs to meet the king and queen of Norway and say their farewells. Hancock, with a hulking Canon camera slung over his shoulder, thrusts his new CD into the hands of the king like a kid shopping his demo. A surreal hugfest breaks out. Arie hugs Hancock. Robyn hugs Manilow. Hathaway hugs everyone.
Onstage, it was all peace. Down here, it's all love.