The Automatic Standing Ovation

Posted: August 26, 2009 in Artistry, Classical Music, Culture, Idealism, Idle Nonsense, Tacky

In disparate superhero narratives where there exists a surfeit of characters with extraordinary powers, someone eventually chimes in something to the effect that once everyone is special, then no one is. Devaluation of special status exists elsewhere, notably with grade inflation in schools and the refusal to keep score in kids’ sports. Both are perversions of the egalitarian instinct. (I’ve also heard it put that we’ve mistaken education for an exercise in affirmation, but that’s another diatribe for another time.) The example that really chaps my ass, however, is the automatic standing ovation.

Public performance is usually regarded as having three components: the creative content, the actual performance taking place on stage, and the audience response occurring both during and immediately after the performance. The creative content might be in a fixed form having existed for decades or centuries, it might be partially mediated by reconstruction or reinterpretation (e.g., a modern setting for a Shakespearean play), or it may be improvised in the moment of performance based on structures and ideas worked out in advance (e.g., improvised jazz and comedy shows). The quality of the performance is ideally what elicits a response from the audience, whether the audience’s emotional resonance sensed by the performers or mere applause. Accordingly, the audience must do its part by attending to the performance, being in the moment, and exercising some critical judgment at the conclusion. Yet audience response in many performance venues has become calcified and mannered. The audience no longer performs its role: providing feedback. Outdoor summer concerts are probably the worst. The sound is usually inferior, and most of the audience treats the on-stage activity as wallpaper while some other activity — talking, eating, reading the newspaper, or merely soaking in the atmosphere — is the real focus of their attention. (This behavior might be an implicit answer to Milton Babbitts’ infamous challenge, “Who Cares if You Listen?”, the answer being yet another question posed by the audience: who cares if we listen?)

Worst of all, at least for this cultural critic, is the automatic standing ovation at so many concert performances. In many performances, despite a high level of execution, the performers appear to be “phoning it in.” Yet someone is sure to leap immediately to his feet (it’s usually a man) and spark a lazy, rambling ovation that has become as inevitable as it is meaningless. It’s impossible to assess whether the standing O is in response to the performance quality, the performer’s stature, or an irrational need to validate one’s own experience. Maybe it’s a foregone conclusion simply because the audience is rising to see over the other goobers standing in the rows directly in front.

What the audience may no longer realize, if in fact it ever did, is that there is considerable power in disapproval. If excellence is a value worth exercising our critical faculties to reward, then the audience can’t simply award virtually every performance its stamp of emphatic approval in the form of a standing ovation. Withholding applause following an on-stage train wreck where someone is revealed, for example, to be lipsyncing or talentless (or both), might be a hole gaping enough to shame the performer. But that’s really closer to damning with faint praise. Once in a while, I’d like to witness full-on booing and heckling the way performers used to expect when they failed. Those behaviors still occur in comedy, where racist jokes or jokes simply told too soon can dampen a room very quickly. We need some of that responsiveness in the concert hall.

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