What Happened to Our Ambition?

I saw the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” this week. I won’t go into the film’s flaws or how it mishandled the timeline of Freddie’s life.

The film’s ending focused on Queen’s performance at Live Aid. The concert took place in July 1985, and I was in junior high.

I remember watching Live Aid with my mother. Specifically, I remember being blown away by Queen’s performance. They weren’t a band I’d paid any attention to until then, but Freddie owned the crowd. When he strutted, they roared. I’d never seen anything like it.

What I also remember about Live Aid was the optimism and the generosity. All those musical stars—artists who competed for air time, awards, and recording contracts—donating their time to raise money.

(In hindsight, the idea had lots of flaws. The funds didn’t always reach the people who needed them. The idea reeked of colonialism and a “white savior” complex. No African artists were on the stage. It treated all of Africa as a monolith instead of individual countries with different concerns. And so on.)

The 1980s saw artists using their art to draw attention to crises. We had Band Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid all focused on African famines. We had Artists United Against Apartheid and Comic Relief.

Many artists—including Jackson Browne, U2, Public Enemy, and Midnight Oil—recorded overtly political albums. Elizabeth Taylor risked arrest and the possible loss of income to fight for AIDS funding. Madonna highlighted safer sex practices and AIDS prevention in an album’s liner notes.

Looking back, a significant number of artists seemed willing—even eager—to work for worthy causes. With so many artists inspiring us, I think many believed we could fix all the world’s ills in a few short years. After all, we’d changed laws to ban CFCs, and the ozone layer started to repair itself. (A new source of CFCs is slowing its repair, which concerns me.)

Maybe I was impressionable and naïve. Or perhaps the world really was a kinder, gentler, more optimistic place. It’s possible all those artists cynically donated their time and likenesses to various causes because it was good PR.

But I hope that wasn’t the case. Instead, I’d rather believe that Freddie, Phil Collins, George Michael, Madonna, and others thought we could solve world hunger through concerts and record sales. That Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal felt humor would convince viewers to end homelessness.

I’m a writer. I believe that art—regardless of its medium—can change people. Creating art certainly changes the artist. We dig deep within ourselves and look unblinkingly at the world around us. Opening ourselves to the world’s dangers, flaws, and ugliness can be frightening. But we also get to see its beauty, its wonders, and its magic.

To find solutions to the world’s problems, artists need to be ambitious. But the ambition I’m talking about isn’t “I want to sell more books than James Patterson” careerism. Instead, it’s the ambition to touch someone’s heart. To open their eyes to possibility and inspire them.

Dropping our protective barriers and trusting that the person seeing our art will understand our vision is risky. It requires trust and courage. I struggle to trust people, and I don’t like taking risks. But I’m working to be more comfortable with both to become a better writer.

What dreams do you have for your art? For your life? What are you most passionate about? How can you make that passion more central to your daily routine? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

(Photo by NASA Earth Observatory, which has an incredible time-lapse video here.)

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