Bob Geldof thinks that rock 'n' roll, which he called "America's great cultural gift to the world," might be over. And during his keynote address on Thursday at South By Southwest, he wasn't merely talking about the Internet and its impact on the industry.
Delivering what many attendees considered to be one of the most thoughtful and well delivered keynote speeches in the conference's 25 years, Geldof voiced despair for what he feels is the disappearing sense of purpose in the music. "Rock 'n' roll needs to be against something. It can't just BE," the singer and social activist explained during his 65-minute address. "It always needs a function in which to function. Of course there are great songs. There will always be great songs that don't suggest anything other than being a great song. But … where are our Ramones or our [Sex] Pistols today? Do we need them? Yes is the answer. Will they be found? Maybe not."
Noting that rock's role in popular culture was to inspire argument and discussion, Geldof cataloged a number of social and economic issues and asked, "What's music got to say about it? I don't hear it. Maybe I can't hear it. I don't hear the disgust in the music; it doesn't have to be literal, it can be suggested. Can you imagine the '60s without the bands interpreting the fast-moving agenda of the times? Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives the illusion of talent ... Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say."
Geldof referred to Facebook as "a fraud and a friend" and iTunes as "a friend and an enemy," noting that "they're working it out." He was not as charitable to bloggers, who he called "a pain in the ass." But he contended that the music is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of its attendant industry.
"People talk about the demise of the industry, and people in the industry are worried, but the industry is only a function of the music," Geldof said. "And the music is only successful when it's relevant. The industry will not exist on the cauterwauling of divas or pretty boys with lovely mouths. This thing we call content is actually about this conversation society has with itself. Rock music provided that: It is intensely powerful, this little minor art form we occupy ourselves with. And when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, then entertainment might be the politics of our time."
Geldof also railed against what he felt were "complacent and smug" festivals and "the glee-club-ification of my music -- f--- off! I want it back!" As for South By Southwest itself, he asked, "Will you find that essential noise? Probably not. Cool bands -- I've heard about a million of them. People told me, 'Go see them, go see them.' The music I hear is continental navel-gazing. Don't do it. Look up. Address the world with that confidence that is strictly the province of this country. Don't turn inward. Don't be scared of the future. Look at it cold-eyed and try to create a new world, with your values."
Of course, Geldof was also in Austin to make some music himself; with a new album -- "How to Compose Popular Songs that Sell" -- just out, he was slated to perform on Thursday night and to be part of a Thin Lizzy tribute show on Friday.
Asked about the album, a grateful Geldof told Billboard.biz that it comes from a decidedly more positive place than his last album, 2001's "Sex, Age & Death," which was recorded in the wake of his contentious split from wife Paula Yates (who died of a drug overdose in 2000). He credits the inspiration for the new set with a new love in his life, whom he met at a dinner in Paris.
"For whatever reason she found something lovable in this detestable person ... and so once that love persists, the shriven soul can only and inevitably respond by reciprocating," Geldof said.
"So a song got stiched back together again, and a human being got reconstructed in the process. Love really is all you need."