Global Citizen Live: Lizzo lets us know pop and protest still go together

Unlike the Covid comeback gig last month, the annual concert-with-a-message survived the climate crisis

The last time I was in Central Park, I got soaked to my underwear.

It was during the Homecoming NYC Concert, a Clive-Davis produced bonanza to celebrate the return of normalcy post-Covid whose line-up included Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon. A couple of hours in, the whole shebang was called off due to “inclement weather”, a contender for understatement of the century.

The night set a record for rain in New York City which was broken less than two weeks later, amid historic flooding.

Perhaps it was by some cosmic twist of fate that the next time Central Park hosted a music festival came on Saturday with Global Citizen Live, an annual event hosted by the eponymous advocacy organization which seeks to combat and eradicate climate change as well as pretty much all other problems in the world.

Global Citizen Live is a curious mix of pop music and awareness, where speeches about our changing planet, poverty and vaccinations are the medicine and moments like Jennifer Lopez bringing out Ja Rule for I’m Real are the spoonfuls of sugar.

It seems to have become cultural law: if there is a major event, whether the Super Bowl or New Year ball drop, Lopez must perform. On Saturday she premiered a ballad, On My Way, and alluded to her relationship with Ben Affleck with a medley of love songs introduced with a wink.

Jennifer Lopez sings.
Jennifer Lopez sings at Global Citizens Live on Saturday. Photograph: Sachyn Mital/REX/Shutterstock

Billie Eilish also performed, walking out to some of the loudest cheers of the night. Here is an artist known for her inventive show, not for eloquence.

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed say,” she muttered during a rambling speech about the, well, ‘serious stuff’. We’re not sure what you’re supposed to say either, Billie. But to her credit, in the middle of one song she did manage to deliver a major announcement.

“It smells like shit up here,” she reported, adding, in case we thought we heard wrong: “I mean, actual doo-doo.”

Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello played solo sets, though Mendes did pop out first to sing their 2019 duet Senorita. In case it wasn’t clear that the two pop icons are deeply in love, they kissed not once but twice.

Global Citizen Live is all about juxtaposition. A crowd packed with revelers watches speeches about ending the pandemic. Plastic bands are handed out for the sole purpose of lighting up during Coldplay’s set – but it’s noted that the bands are made from recycled plastic. The rapper Meek Mill comes complete with air horns, but shares the bill with droll comments from a Verizon executive.

Such cognitive dissonance was on full display when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle made a surprise appearance. They spoke about vaccine equality, Markle noting: “Every single person on this planet has a fundamental right to get this vaccine.” Through no fault of their own, the biggest cheer came when Harry merely said two words: “My wife.”

This was a show that also reflected a growing interest in social issues, no doubt an aftershock of the explosion of social and political activism in 2020. The first Global Citizen Live was held in 2012 but the concert has finally caught up with the culture. It’s no longer cool not to care.

Delivering a charismatic performance, the audience feeding out of her hand, Lizzo noted that Central Park stands on land once home to a Black community, Seneca Village, which was cleared away. Mendes and Cabello brought out guest speakers, the two stepping aside for Alok, a gender non-comforming performer, and the Harlem native Fanta Ballo, who recited a poem during Mendes’s time on stage. Both were emotional moments, concert highlights maybe not possible in previous years.

Paul Simon closes the show.
Paul Simon closes the show. Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision

And as night fell, with the plastic bands for Coldplay lighting up the Great Lawn and the six-hour festivities seemingly coming to a close, the audience was treated to one last surprise.

Paul Simon took the stage, performing a moving rendition of The Sound of Silence. It was a fitting ending, tying up loose ends.

This time, walking out of Central Park was a dry and calm affair, though if we learned anything from the speakers, we shouldn’t take pleasant weather for granted.

Lizzo summed up the yin and yang of it all.

“They want me to talk to y’all about climate change,” she said. “But I feel like I don’t have to talk to you. We can see it.”


Rob LeDonne

The GuardianTramp

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