Tibetmania!

The film explains the political reasons China keeps control of the very large country (because of its strategic location and as a valve space for overpopulation, primarily), but it doesn't attempt to talk straight about what life was really like in the country it idealizes. My copy of the People's Almanac says that before 1959, 90 percent of Tibetans were serfs and another 5 percent were slaves. All of the land was owned by about 3 percent of the population -- noble families, feudal lords, and Buddhist monasteries. The Almanac says the Chinese wanted reform. The Dalai Lama promised it in 1957, but two years later, the Chinese decided reform wasn't coming fast enough and invaded, nastily. The Dalai Lama is an icon of nonviolence around the world and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but it doesn't seem that he did much for the vast majority of his people. Or is that OK because his people were just Asian peasants who loved their simple way of life? Would you trade places with one? He was the political and spiritual leader of his country; how would you feel if we had a system like that in the States?

Is it fair to hold presumably well-meaning rockers to such irritating questions? Yes. Bangladesh and the like were humanitarian-aid efforts. This, as the organizers say, is to raise awareness, and when you're trying to do that, facts and images and symbols matter, right?

These days, awareness comes cheap. Or rather, it doesn't come cheap. An advertising agency commands millions of dollars to raise awareness about wide-legged Levi's or Air Jordans. Today, hawking politics is like selling jeans or shoes, and the Milarepa Fund has agreeably packaged its activism in small, digestible pieces. At the shows, concertgoers could sign petitions. Buy the album, and there's a postcard addressed to the president. Milarepa offers educational materials at a Web site and on the enhanced CD computer stuff on the third album. Next steps suggested: Boycott products made in China; join Students for a Free Tibet. The movie tacitly suggests a further step by showing activists being arrested in front of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.

But of course when you're so single-minded about your cause you miss a lot of the obvious stuff, which is why ultimately the organizers for me have about as much credibility as a jeans or a sneaker company -- who are using Asian peasants in only a slightly more exploitative way.

And in the end what do you have? A mildly interesting film, some good performances on disc. Unsurprisingly, the finest moments in the film and on record are free of politics: the crowd's bellow against Beck and his harmonica on "One Foot in the Grave"; Bjsrk skipping across the stage during "Hyper-Ballad"; even Sonic Youth's slow build and big payoff on "Wildflower." On "Root Down," the groove is thick and the Beastie Boys sound like they mean it. Ben Harper pulls off a fair Hendrix impersonation on "Ground on Down." Some of the political stuff even works. Rancid's "The Harder They Come" is fun, peppy, and energetic; Patti Smith uses improvised spoken word to head into orbit at the end of "About a Boy."

Will the record and film be successful in "raising awareness"? If you're selling jeans and sneakers, you simply add up the receipts; maybe that's all the Milarepa people will have to do. On the other hand, young adults, the targeted demo, have a reputation for falling asleep if the earth isn't shaking. You know, the Tibetan Freedom concerts seem so ... so ... so 1996. Tibetmania made it to the cover of Time in October, a good indication that the phenomenon is over. Maybe the organizers have more work ahead of them. Or maybe the audience isn't dumb or flip at all; maybe they just want a clear message about a complicated issue and supporters whose ability to persuade us of the rightness of their cause isn't mixed up in a bunch of political and musical symbols that make no sense.

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