Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


There exists a curious, hackneyed ploy used by some fading entertainers to stir up controversy and, they hope, breath a bit of new life into failing careers: (1) The entertainers introduce unadvertised, controversial material - usually of a political and/or sexual nature - into their dated  performances. (2) Some people in the audience raise a fuss. (3) The fading entertainer and his/her supporters fuss back, crying "censorship," "artistic freedom" and the like. The resulting media fuss is supposed to provide the career lift.

Linda Ronstadt is the latest cantante desperada to avail herself of this device - but the trick has been around for many, many years. In fact, the trick has been around for more years even than Linda Ronstadt has been around, and that's a long time - we're talking about someone here who shared a safari tent with Jerry Brown in the 1970's. The Las Vegas Aladdin casino recently fired the plump, pop diva following a concert during which she lovingly dedicated the song "Desperado" to Michael Moore, producer of "Fahrenheit 9/11," causing the room to "erupt" into boos and cheers and making hundreds of angry people stream from the theater, some of them reportedly defacing posters of her in the lobby, writing comments and tossing drinks on her pictures.

The New York Times predictably gets it all wrong:

[Ejecting Ms. Ronstadt] from the premises ... assumes that Ms. Ronstadt had no right to express a political opinion from the stage. It implies - for some members of the audience at least - that there is a philosophical contract that says an artist must entertain an audience only in the ways that audience sees fit. It argues, in fact, that an artist like Ms. Ronstadt does not have the same rights as everyone else.

Perhaps her praise for Mr. Moore, even at the very end of her show, did ruin the performance for some people. They have a right to voice their disapproval - to express their opinion as Ms. Ronstadt expressed hers and to ask for a refund. But if their intemperate behavior began to worry the management, then they were the ones who should have been thrown out and told never to return, not Ms. Ronstadt, who threatened, after all, only to sing.

The Times is utterly wrong because the significant issue raised by Ms. Ronstadt's ploy is consumer protection for the audience - not the right of an artist to freedom of expression. The Aladdin  didn't advertise Ms. Ronstadt's concert as having political content - it was billed as a concert of her old songs,  her "greatest hits." In fact, Ms. Ronstadt took strong issue from the stage even with that  advertising, criticizing it as misleading. She suggested that the Aladdin was therefore remiss for misrepresenting her performance to the audience. But she was much more guilty of misleading her audience and her employer.

In short, it is not the case that her dismissal implies - for some members of the audience at least - that there is a philosophical contract that says an artist must entertain an audience only in the ways that audience sees fit. Rather, it implies - for every member of the audience - that there is a contract that says an artist must entertain an audience only in the ways that the artist and her employer have led the audience to believe will be the case. And that contract is a good thing.

Given the advertising for her show and her own agreement with her employer, those who chose to spend their time and money on Ms. Ronstadt rather than on her competitors on the strip - that is, the audience and the Aladdin - had a perfect right at showtime to expect an aging chanteuse who was never of quite the first rank warble a series of songs not of quite the first rank, interspersed by innocuous, nostalgic banter for the 1970's. Such is the standard nature of the Las Vegas show of the likes of which Ms. Ronstadt has now descended to pay for her mortgage and walking around money, and such was the message the advertising conveyed to her public.

If Ms. Ronstadt had desired to present a political show at the Aladdin she could have informed her employer of that fact. The Aladdin would then have had the opportunity to modify its advertising to note that Ms. Ronstadt would be expressing controversial - even flakey - political views. She chose not to do any of that.

Suppose Ms. Ronstadt had elected to express herself on that same stage by removing her clothing or, to cite another Vegas example, biting the ear off someone she didn't care for. Would any sensible person argue that she was within her rights to present her plump, old, naked body to that audience or that she had her right (like any other pooch) to "one bite" - or that the audience's resulting expression of outrage amounting only to "defacement" of her misleading posters and cat calls was so "intemperate" as to spare the performer all blame or make her less blameful than the audience? Of course not.

Moreover, the Times criticism of the audience is particularly off base since it is well known that Las Vegas audiences are generally drunk. They are supposed to be or get drunk - or nearly so. The casinos make their money by selling them drinks - lots of drinks - and that drink money helps pay Ms. Ronstadt's fee. And she knows all that and so does the Times. To demand as the Times implicitly does that an audience which the casino has deliberately made drunk behave as if they were all soberly sitting in some airless newsroom in mid-town Manhattan is grotesque. Ms. Ronstadt's use of her ploy on an audience she knows perfectly well is largely intoxicated makes her judgment all the worse.

But the Times judgment is even worse.

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