Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Aladdin Casino and The New McCarthyism

It's my sad duty to convey the news that all is not well in Sin City.

At the end of the movie Casino Bobby De Niro lamented the Kafka-esque metamorphosis of Las Vegas from a mob-controlled den of vice, gambling, sleaze, decadence, and hedonism to a family-orientated theme park. Cocktail Angst's Last Tango in Vegas (featured on the Vegas Swings compilation) poses the question What happened to the seeds that Frankie sowed; what have they done to Bugsy's town? The answer is inescapable. They killed it stone dead. I'll tell you why....

Now I'm no fan of Michael Moore. I think he's a talented polemicist who never lets the facts stand in the way of a good story. I'm not going to elaborate on this because it's only my view and, for the purposes of this argument, it matters not a jot what I think of the guy. What matters is he has a right to express his views and people have a right to hear him and make their own minds up.

Not, it seems, in Bush's America. "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" just got a little less free and a lot more paranoid and scared.

It's been coming for a while. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was forced into making a public apology to Bush after she had the "temerity" to remark in London recently that the current President made her ashamed to come from Texas. Irate callers, apparently, jammed country music radio station switchboards demanding an embargo be placed on the Dixie Chicks music and "concerned and patriotic citizens" called for boycotts of their records and the Dixie Chicks record label. An amusing parody of Maines' apology can be found here

So much so worrying but now The Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has jumped on the populist bandwagon that is The New McCarthyism.

Singer Linda Ronstadt appeared at The Aladdin a few days ago. She dedicated a song to Moore and urged people to go and see his new movie Farenheit 9/11. What followed could have been described as farcical if it wasn't so disturbing. First of all a significant minority of the audience decided to storm out of the theatre demanding their money back. Some allegedly threw their cocktails in the air and tore down posters advertising the gig. Next the Aladdin, in it's finite wisdom, elected to curtail Ronstadt's performance and eject her from the premises, not even having the courtesy to allow her to go back to her suite to change and collect her luggage.

The Casino claimed that "Ms Ronstadt was hired to entertain the guests of the Aladdin, not to espouse her political views." They claimed that she was engaged to sing and not to talk politics.

So singers shouldn't be allowed to talk? Should stand-up comedians be allowed to sing? Should singers introduce their songs with a song? I once saw Al Green sing his travel itinerary to an appreciative audience but even he talked a little. Al talked about Christianity and stuff like that. I guess that was beyond his remit?

If Linda Ronstadt had sung a song attacking the Bush administration or one in tribute to Michael Moore that would, presumably, have been fine by with The Aladdin ~ I assume they're not proposing that singers be prohibited from singing about political matters? If they are it loooks like we just lost approximately half the world's legacy of popular song! If she had sung a pro-Moore or anti-Bush song I'll bet you a whisky sour to all the beer in Brooklyn that the monkey in charge of the casino would still have thrown her out.

If we follow the Aladdin's reasoning to it's absurd conclusion stand-up comedians would be within their rights to tell "unpatriotic" jokes about the Iraqi campaign but would be in deep trouble if they sang about it. People who go to see comedians, according to Aladdin logic, pay to hear jokes (and only jokes) and jokes critical of the Bush administration are still jokes, right?

Tom Cruise gave an excruciatingly jingoistic speech at the Oscars following 9/11. Presumably the literal-minded Aladdin management would suggest his ass should have been thrown out onto the red carpet because award ceremonies are, duh, for giving out awards? I doubt it.

And why should actors express their political opinions in public anyway?

I know Vegas is another world but I didn't realise performers had to check their political views at the casino door. So are we to assume, then, that certain venues in certain cities are off-limits to politics. Which venues in which towns are appropriate for the expression of political opinions? New York, L.A. and San Francisco are OK, I guess. Vegas, Houston and Salt Lake City are, I'm guessing, out? Or is it just that some political views are off-limits wherever they're expressed in "The Land of the Free" these days?

Vegas has changed and that's a fact. I'm sure the casino bosses were AOK with Frank Sinatra's racist jokes about Rat Pack "buddy" Sammy Davis Jnr. back in the day and the Chairman of the Board's sexist treatment of "broads" probably had Sam Giancana and co. rolling in the aisles when they weren't too busy relieving the count room of the mob's share of the casino profits. Of course I'm just being facetious now but I'm sure Vegas wasn't exactly off-limits to politics when Sinatra and co. were smoothing JFK's passage to the White House.

The Aladdin and some irate customers claimed that they had no warning that the show might contain political content. As a matter of fact Linda Ronstadt is a well-known opinionated liberal and she'd introduced the same song with a reference to Michael Moore at all her other tour dates. Presumably if Ronstadt had been made aware of the fact that different standards apply in Vegas then perhaps she could have confined herself to the stereotypical preconception her audience had of her?

Now correct me if I'm wrong but I thought the whole point of art was to provoke, amuse, surprise, stimulate and excite? Not in America it seems.

Rock and roll, and popular music in general, have never been, and should never be, about conformism. If you can predict exactly what an artist is going to do or say on stage then you're probably at an anodyne Celine Dion concert with an audience composed of conformist cadavers and the blue-rinse brigade. Of course any audience have the right to vote with their feet if they don't like what an artist sings or says. They have the right to decline to buy their product. They don't have the right to prevent them from saying and singing what they like.

The casino was, no doubt, trying to make cheap promotional capital by pandering to prevailing populist political sentiment. This is Vegas we're talking about after all. Nothing goes down in Vegas if money isn't at the root of it. I'll warrant this was all about "the dead presidents" rather than the brain-dead president.

One thing's for sure a venue would be roundly castigated by British public opinion if it pulled a cheap political stunt like this. Trying to ingratiate yourself with the current administration by attacking freedom of political and artistic expression is not a tactic anyone would even think of using in the U.K. Who would want to be known as a censorious sycophant? I know Huey Lewis sang It's hip to be square but why the Hell did the Yanks have to take him so seriously?

You can't disengage people from their political views and you certainly can't disengage politics from music. One of my favourite albums of all-time is an undeniably political record: "What's Goin' On" by Marvin Gaye.

Ironically America has a particularly rich tradition of political music. From rock to r'n'b, funk, soul and rap (the most overtly political genre of music yet) politics and music have been inseparable.

Singers, musicians, artists, comedians and creative people generally are multi-faceted individuals. From the moment they take to the stage to the moment they leave it they own the stage. They can say, do and sing what they like. It's called freedom of artistic expression.

If artists break the law alert the approproriate authorities. Otherwise let performers perform. The minute baboons in dinner jackets begin censoring their performances and pandering to populist, reactionary sentiment is the minute we're all in big trouble. And the moment "intelligent" people (The Aladdin's egregious act has had more than it's share of apologists in the American media) start approving of the actions of reactionary baboons in dinner jackets is the moment the party ends.

Looks like, in Vegas at any rate, that time is now.