Earlier versions of this story, including in the print edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly said that Barry Manilow performed "I Write the Songs" at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo. The song was "Can't Smile Without You." This version has been corrected.
Give peace a dance
Monday, December 13, 2010
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."