What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?

The worlds of pop and pomp collide at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo

Published December 15, 1998 5:14PM (EST)

Have you ever felt like the whole point of this planet is merely to act as a stage for big showbiz productions? Judging by the profusion of entertainment-oriented events in the sociopolitical complex, there may be some truth to that view. For the past five years, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded at the Oslo Town Hall on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, in conjunction with a pop concert meant to be, in the words of Nobel Institute director Geir Lundstadt, "a musical tribute to peace in general and to the peace laureate of the year in specific." (Past concerts have featured Jewel, Sinéad O'Connor, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.) When it was announced earlier this year that the lineup would include the Cranberries, it fueled speculation that the peace prize winners -- then unannounced -- would be the Irish entrants, John Hume and David Trimble, as indeed turned out to be the case.

Although this year's concert was somewhat overshadowed by the Amnesty International benefit concert held in Paris the night before, which drew the world music press to its gates with a bill boasting Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen, the Nobel Peace Prize lineup featured Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Phil Collins, as well as several well-known international acts.

One has to wonder if the Nobel laureates are as edified by Twain's presence as she is by theirs. During last Friday's three-hour event, there were many times when I eyed both Trimble, Hume and His Royal Highness, King Harald of Norway, and wondered what they were thinking. Well, I can only imagine what they were thinking about Shania Twain, who's extreme prettiness overshadows anything else she does. But is there not an unintentional trivialization that takes place when you add pop to pomp? Though that was my initial thesis, when the concert was over I had to revise my thesis. The Nobel Prize may have dignity on its side, but pop music has a power all its own -- a power that can, in certain situations, work its own kind of miracle.

The concert was a relatively intimate gathering, attended by about 2,000 extremely well-heeled Norwegians in smart black coats and boots. But with regard to eclecticism, it had Lollapalooza beat by miles -- some of the world's biggest pop acts, like India's Pandits ShivHari and Africa's Oumou Sangare, delivered a fitting homage to the peace process that the Nobel Institute attempts to honor and facilitate.

But make no mistake: It was corny. Cornier than Christmas, cornier than "Cats," even. I think I cried about 17 times, the first time when Trimble and Hume came into the arena together. Then I cried for the king, because earlier in the day I bought a postcard of him as a sweet little boy on a horse -- and now, it turns out, he's bald. Then I cried for the little boys in sailor suits who sang "God Save the King" in Norwegian. And it was all downhill from there. I managed to stay dry-eyed for the Cranberries and Phil Collins, but just barely. I choked up again when poor President Clinton came on the video screen to congratulate the laureates, and the audience audibly snickered. Luckily, Clinton had learned a sentence in Norske, and when he uttered it -- "thanks and God bless" -- the giggles turned to cheers.

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Norway, it seems, is an irony-free zone, which may be why the Nobel Peace Prize is bestowed there. Few non-Norwegians could stay as straight-faced as host Ase Kleveland (apparently Norway's homegrown version of Joan Baez) did while delivering pious platitudes like "the prize is a flickering flame of hope in the violent darkness" -- especially given the failed efforts of recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including, sadly, Hume and Trimble. But it must be even harder to utter such platitudes while introducing dopey pop stars who sing mostly stupid songs about sex.

Possibly the worst offenders of decorum were the Cranberries, who opened the concert by unabashedly plugging their upcoming LP. The Cranberries are a surprisingly apolitical band, unless you think of the lovelorn lyrics of songs like "Dreams" and the new "Promises" as a kind of Big Picture take on the Betrayal and Unease of Being Irish. That, however, was a bigger leap of faith than I was willing to make, especially when confronted with Dolores O'Riordan in an itty-bitty gold tank top, leather pants and one of those faux fur coats à la "Velvet Goldmine." But the lyrics to "Dreams" ("And Oh my dreams, it's never quiet as it seems") did remind me of Trimble's somewhat dark and pessimistic acceptance speech, in which he pointed out that the peace process in Ireland is a long way from being enacted: "[That doesn't mean that] I don't have dreams -- I do -- but I try to have them at night."

The pragmatic Trimble, unswayed by the sappy romantic idealism of Nobelliousness, was probably not the proper audience for the pop fluffiness that followed -- particularly the next act, gorgeous Norwegian boy-toy Espen Lind. He sang a song called "Pop From Hell" that was equal parts Bauhaus and Ace of Base. After him, however, the concert became increasingly sentimental. First James Galway and Phil Coultier did "Danny Boy" (which they also performed at the acceptance ceremony). They were followed by Twain, who's ultra-glamorous version of new country music is just about as far from real country as real country is from the 17th century Irish folk music from which it evolved. I saw a review in the Norwegian paper the next day that referred to Twain as "plastikkdame," a word that doesn't really require translation. Nevertheless, her rendition of "You're Still the One I Want" was pretty moving; having been worked over by Kleveland and an endless slide show of Belfast terrors, I got all choked up during lines like, "They said we'd never make it/but look how far we've made it."

Enrique Iglesias, the Shania Twain of Latin America, was equally fabulous, especially the way he made the words "por favor" last for 15 syllables. Collins, accompanied by a slide show of homeless people, sang two of his "socially conscious" songs, "Both Sides of the Story" and "Another Day in Paradise" -- and even that didn't make me nauseous. Numerous Nobel laureates addressed the crowd via video. A bunch of young schoolgirls sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" directly to Hume and Trimble, who stood awkwardly in front of them with their hands clasped, looking like they hated life.

Presently, Bono came on the video screen to tell us he felt "blessed" that the Nobel Peace Prize went to Hume and Trimble, and that "for the first time in years in Ireland, it feels like the future is more vivid than the past." A-Ha came on next and rocked my world, and finally Morissette closed the show with "Baba," "Uninvited" and "Thank U." As had been the case with Twain's performance, here Morrisette's songs were infused with deeper meaning. "How 'bout not blaming you for everything? How 'bout finally forgiving?" she sang, staring straight at Hume and Trimble. "Thank you terror. Thank you disillusionment. Thank you clarity. Thank you frailty. Thank you consequence ..." In a single, pure moment, pop idiocy rose right above rhetoric, and somehow it all made sense.

By Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press).

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