Liberace, legendary pianist and entertainer, had just left the stage for a costume change when the theater manager told him President Richard Nixon intended to resign. The manager wanted Mr. Showmanship to announce it to the audience when he returned. Liberace refused. His reason is a lesson for artists and activists like Madonna. People come to escape and be entertained, Liberace told the manager, not to pay for a political stump speech or receive breaking news bulletins.
At a recent concert in Louisiana, a state that often votes Republican, Madonna urged her audience to vote for the re-election of President Barack Obama. She was booed and several audience members walked out. It shouldn’t be any surprise that there were many, committed supporters of former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in attendance.
Things would have been very different had she offered several free mini-concerts at Obama campaign rallies. Similarly, she would have been better off making an announcement on a popular television talk show or at a major fundraiser. Artists can attract a great deal of attention for important causes. Sometimes they walk a fine line between being an artist and pop icon to millions and preaching to a captured audience who pay for escape and entertainment.
Of course there are shades of gray. Is it acceptable for Madonna to oppose, as she did this year, St. Petersburg, Russia’s draconian homophobic new law at a concert? Why is it inappropriate for her to push for the re-election of President Obama? In each case, fans pay to be entertained. Yet there are distinctions to be made.
In the case of Russia, Madonna advocated for free speech being denied to a minority group. Madonna made it clear weeks before the concert she planned to raise the issue. Wearing a rainbow flag pin in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a few other places in holy Russia, for example, can now get someone a heavy fine and several years in jail for “promoting homosexual propaganda.” Forced “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, denounced by the leading medical associations throughout the world, is also a legal option in Russia.
No two situations are identical. Artists need to be mindful of the cause and balance their personal beliefs with respect for the audience who pays to have the pressures of life taken away for a few hours.
Paul Jesep is a policy analyst and author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis available on Kindle and in print.