“Would you ever go play a private show for a president?” my wife asked, already knowing the answer. She knows how I feel about royalty and power and government and entitlement and pomp and all that business. I’m not a fan. She was just goading me.
“Nope …he can buy a ticket like everybody else,” was my cavalier reply.
She pressed, “So what if he or she DOES buy a ticket? Now you’ve got an audience with the most powerful person on earth. Would you say something?”
I thought about it for a long time. In fact …I’m still thinking about it. I’m DEEPLY dedicated to several causes. I’m very outspoken about adoption and the issues that surround “chosen families.” I’m a veterans’ advocate and work with PTSD patients. I am a strong supporter (almost tragically so) of songwriters and creators. I believe their (OUR) story is an American tragedy that hasn’t yet been properly written about. And finally, I would do almost anything on earth to get a huge chunk of NIH funding for Angelman Syndrome research (Angelman Syndrome being the chromosomal disorder that afflicts my 14-year-old daughter).
Yeah …there’s A LOT I’d like to say to a president.
Then, I think about the show and the setting and why we’re all there. I look in the mirror, before I go on (every time) and remind myself of who I am and what I do. I think about all the things my parents taught me about performing: nobody came from a hard day to watch YOU have one. Don’t punish the people who showed up because of the people who didn’t …stuff like that. And I remember that anyone coming to see a show or hear some music, needs a good time. They need to laugh and cry and dance and feel good for a minute. That’s why you’re there as the performer. That’s your job. And they didn’t come to see you be an amateur …they can see that anywhere. They came because somebody told them you were a cut above amateur. And the minute they lay their hard earned money down and surrender their time to you …you both share a sacred trust.
They are purchasing something they do not need and can live without. Your job is to convince them otherwise and make them leave wondering how they ever lived their life without you in it.
Given that foundation, I tend to steer clear of big statements in a show unless they are statements EVERYONE can get behind. I tell my story and I sing my songs. And I want you, no matter what you had for breakfast, how you feel about trade deficits, and no matter who you voted for, to be on my side by the end of the night. I want you to leave my show feeling like you’re loved and valued …not just wowed. Wowed is a given. Wowing is the performer’s basic job. Pouring yourself into the listener and giving your entire self away, is the higher level of the job.
Having said that, I do embrace the tradition of speaking truth to power through art. Social critique is a must for any real artist. If you never point out the absurd, you might not be looking hard enough. And so, believe it or not, I kind of support this Hamilton actor in his flipping the bird to the vice president elect. But there are some rules of the road for being a TRUE badass, art rebel …
1. AMERICA DOESN’T COUNT.
No one speaking out in America is really doing anything brave. Because you won’t be jailed in America for your opinion. Nobody rounded up Sinead O’Conor and arrested her after she ripped up a picture of the Pope on SNL. We all just shrugged and prayed to almighty God for her song to be over …so we could get back to the Church Lady.
Charlie Hebdo has done the bravest satire of this century. Because they’re actually attacking REAL absurdity that has REAL consequence. Amy Shumer wouldn’t do it. SNL wouldn’t do it. John Stewart wouldn’t do it. Key and Peele wouldn’t do it. All of them are funny people …but NONE of them are really brave artists. Why? Because …
2. THE STAKES ARE THE THING.
When Mohamed Ali refused to go to Vietnam …he went to jail for 3 years. Those are real protest stakes.
The real rebel artists right now are the ones tackling the absurdity of a religion that still beheads people. Charlie Hebdo put their LIVES on the line to lampoon it. And some of them paid the ultimate price. The only time I’ve ever done anything like that was when I sang an unapproved song (about America) in China, at a hotel. I was pretty certain they wouldn’t arrest me …but I wasn’t completely sure. And that raised the stakes to an acceptable level.
If there are no real stakes, then you’re just doing an advertising campaign. But you don’t get “brave” status.
3. YOU GO TO THEM.
Johnny Cash didn’t wait till he had an audience with someone powerful, to speak out about prison reform. He went to the damn prison he wrote about and looked it in the eye. THAT’S how you do it.
4. IF YOU FEEL STRONGLY ENOUGH …DON’T SHOW UP.
If I were contracted to do a show for Hitler or Assad or some dime store oil sheik, who murders innocents and flies around in a customized 747, I probably wouldn’t accept the contract in the first place. You can’t vet everyone you play for, but if you know and dislike enough about them to yell at them after show …maybe just exercise your right to not participate in their life.
5. MAKE SURE NO ONE’S STANDING BEHIND YOU.
If I were going to make some grandiose statement to a political figure, I wouldn’t do it on a Ghost Town Troubadours stage …unless we had all discussed it prior to the show. My stuff is my stuff and their stuff is their stuff and when we share the stage …it’s entertainment …FOR EVERYBODY. If you want to make your statement …do it solo. Your co-stars aren’t on the same journey you’re on. They might want this gig for a while.
Finally, I would simply say that admonishing the vice president elect, in an unprecedented manor, probably didn’t give the man anything new to think about …except how much he hated the ending of that show.
For the rest of his life, “Hamilton” will not mean something artful and transcendent and moving and special and life affirming for him. It will mean yet another brow beating and lecture …in what has no doubt been a series of brow beatings and lectures, directed at him over the last weeks.
Let the art speak for itself. Allow it to settle and sink in to the listener. Let the man leave with some questions. Maybe Mike Pence leaves Hamilton saying to himself, “My God that was spectacular. The diversity and texture in it has given me a fresh look at something I may have been missing. As vice president, I want to make sure THIS continues in America. THIS is what we should aspire to.”
Who knows if he would think that way. But he definitely won’t, now. Now, he leaves the show with his daughter embarrassed and his position impugned. He leaves with a bad taste in his mouth. He leaves at odds with the artist, instead of sympathetic to the artist’s plight.
Art is supposed to draw you in …not push you away.
So, would I metaphorically spit in the face of a newly elected Kanye West, or someone else I can’t believe is in that office? I don’t know. But I would hope that everything I want to say to the world is wrapped up in the songs themselves. I would hope I wouldn’t have to say another thing when I’m done and taking the final bow. I would hope that whatever it is I want and need you to know …whether you’re a president or a plumber …is in the DNA of the art itself.
And I would hope you wouldn’t need a “PS …Just to be clear …THIS is what I meant” …after the applause.