America sings a new song of celebrity censorship

A furore over a Linda Ronstadt gig is the latest in a series of rows about politics that is casting a shadow over the world of US entertainment. By Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent US

The scene was the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas last Saturday night. Linda Ronstadt, the fifty-something folk-rocker, was just coming to the end of a concert backed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

The scene was the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas last Saturday night. Linda Ronstadt, the fifty-something folk-rocker, was just coming to the end of a concert backed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Then she offered one last song, the old Eagles hit "Desperado", and dedicated it to Michael Moore, the rabble-rousing film-maker whose Bush-bashing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 has polarised the country like no other cultural event of the early summer.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Depending who you believe, either the audience ran out of control or the Aladdin's management did. Either way, the upshot was that Ms Ronstadt was hustled off stage and out of the building and told she would not be welcome back, now or ever again. She was not even allowed to return to her hotel room to pack. Hotel employees checked out for her instead.

"We needed her off the property," hotel spokeswoman Tyri Squyres told local reporters. "She wanted to incite the audience, and she incited them to the point where they were very upset."

Hard though it is to imagine a diminutive middle-aged woman with a bob haircut and a honey-sweet voice starting a riot in America's very own Sin City, the Ronstadt Affair seems destined to go down as the latest surreal episode to mark this contentious, jumpily hostile election season.

Ms Ronstadt's fellow liberal entertainers were quick to cry foul yesterday about suppression of free speech and what they see as a climate of fear fostered by the Bush administration. (Ms Ronstadt herself has chosen not to comment.) The blow-hard opinion makers on the other side, meanwhile, were equally quick to accuse her of woefully misreading her audience and turning what was meant to be a pleasant piece of musical entertainment into a wholly inappropriate piece of political grandstanding.

Amid the furore, it was almost impossible to discern what actually happened in those fateful few minutes last Saturday night. According to the Aladdin's president, an expatriate Brit called Bill Timmins, Ms Ronstadt's dedication to Michael Moore - and her urging that everyone who has not yet gone to see the film do so -- pushed the audience into a frenzy of indignation. Soon they were throwing cups at the stage, storming out of the auditorium en masse and ripping down promotional posters as they stomped to the box-office to demand their money back.

"It was a very ugly scene," Mr Timmins, who was in the audience himself, told the Associated Press. Ms Ronstadt, he charged, "spoiled a wonderful evening for our guests and we had to do something about it". It was his decision to call security and have the singer escorted out of the building. She was scheduled to play just the one night, so she didn't lose any performances, but Mr Timmins made clear she could forget any future dates at his establishment. "As long as I'm here, she's not going to play," he said.

Not everyone present agreed with Mr Timmins' account, however. Paula Francis, a news anchor on a local television station, told the Las Vegas Review Journal that her experience of the concert was quite different.

"I was so stunned to read in the newspaper that anyone had a negative reaction," she said. "Everyone who was leaving when I was leaving was just thrilled. They thought it was a good concert." At the moment of the Michael Moore dedication, she said, "there were loud boos and there was quite a bit of applause. But everyone calmed down right away and seemed to enjoy the rest of the encore."

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that the atmosphere surrounding performers and celebrities who express their political views - particularly, though not exclusively, when those views are hostile to President Bush -- has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. A similar spasm of tension and partisan hostility surrounded the entertainment business in the run-up to the Iraq war at the beginning of last year, when radio stations organised a boycott of the country trio The Dixie Chicks and a conservative internet group led by a North Carolina housewife entitled Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits organised letter-writing campaigns to have prominent Hollywood liberals booted out of their jobs and off the airwaves.

The latest round was almost certainly kicked off by the massive wave of publicity surrounding the release of Mr Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Mr Moore's own free speech rights have not suffered one jot and his film has to date taken in just shy of $100m (£53m) at the US box-office - five times as much as his previous record-breaking documentary Bowling For Columbine. But his gleeful needling of the President, both in the film and in the surrounding publicity campaign, have infuriated Bush loyalists and set the scene for a cultural, as well as a political, stand-off in the run-up to the 2 November presidential election.

Earlier this month, the comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg became a target for Republican Party operatives after she made genitalia jokes about the President's name at a celebrity-studded fundraiser for Democratic candidate John Kerry. Not only did the Republicans denounce the whole affair, at New York's Radio City Music Hall, as a "hate fest" revealing the true colours of both Mr Kerry and the Hollywood establishment. Ms Goldberg also lost her job as a pitch woman for the diet-food company Slimfast, which is based in the electorally sensitive state of Florida where President Bush's brother Jeb is governor.

The issue has been further stirred up by Sir Elton John, who said in an interview with New York magazine this month that he saw an "atmosphere of fear" in the United States like nothing else since the McCarthy red-baiting era of the early 1950s. He said artists were afraid to speak out and had shied away from the kind of anti-government criticism that marked the protest songs and political theatre of the Vietnam War era. "Everyone is too career-conscious. They're all too scared," he said.

Sir Elton's remarks could probably do with a little careful parsing. Although the attacks on performers do indeed raise questions about freedom of speech, they have also been used and abused by people on both sides of the argument to further their own agendas. That has been particularly true of Mr Moore, who expertly manufactured a controversy over the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 to generate invaluable advance publicity - accusing Disney of censorship because the company wanted nothing to do with him and told him to find a distribution deal elsewhere, which he duly did.

Yesterday, Mr Moore leapt on the Ronstadt Affair and somehow managed to make it all his own. On his website he posted the cover of Ms Ronstadt's album Living In The USA and added the slogan: "Thank-you Linda Ronstadt!" He also posted an open letter to Mr Timmins of the Aladdin, taking him to task for gross over-reaction.

"What country do you live in?" Mr Moore wrote. "Last time I checked, Las Vegas is still in the United States. And in the United States, we have something called the First Amendment. This constitutional right gives everyone here the right to say whatever they want to say.... For you to throw Linda Ronstadt off the premises because she dared to say a few words in support of me and my film, is simply stupid and un-American. Frankly, I have never heard of such a thing happening."

The Aladdin quickly sought to deny that it was suppressing anybody's rights. "It did not come down to the statements she had said, per se," a spokeswoman said. "It's about using our venue for political commentary versus being an entertainer. She was hired to entertain, not to preach."

That explanation, in turn, seems a little disingenuous, since Ms Ronstadt has been dedicating Desperado to Mr Moore throughout her current tour and announced the fact in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal published last Friday, the day before her concert: "They say the country is evenly divided, and boy is that true. One half of the audience cheers and the other half boos," she said.

She added: "I don't understand this country sometimes and I really fear for it. The government is making everybody in the world hate us, including the people that used to be our friends."

Besides her music, Ms Ronstadt's political views are probably the best-known thing about her. In the 1970s she had a much-publicised romance with Jerry Brown, the liberal governor of California who went on to make two unsuccessful runs for the presidency. In a show in San Diego on Sunday night, she made overt references to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent attacks on "girlie men" in the state legislature. Her dedication to Michael Moore - which she clearly has no intention of dropping - split her audience in two but caused no undue ructions, according to an account in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

As Ms Ronstadt's experience shows, the atmosphere in the United States is not one of systematic censorship so much as extreme volatility: there is no knowing when a political statement is going to cause an adverse reaction. The Dixie Chicks episode, triggered by a comment made on a London stage by lead singer Natalie Maines, who told the audience she was ashamed to come from President Bush's home state of Texas, might have been a non-event but for the concerted efforts of a handful of online Bush supporters and the sympathetic hearing they received from pro-administration radio station owners.

One radio chain, Cumulus Media, even arranged for a tractor to crush Dixie Chicks CDs, tapes and videos in an episode that was so extreme as to backfire. The trio, buoyed by the torrent of publicity, was soon back on the top of the charts and was even honoured by a neologism - dixie-chicked - to denote anyone unlucky enough to suffer a political hate campaign.

Whoopi Goldberg appears to have been a victim of another such concerted campaign, this time arranged by the Republican National Committee. Her liberal politics and dirty mouth are hardly secrets to anyone who has followed her career with even minimal attention over the past 15 years or so, and one imagines that Slimfast knew what they were taking on when they hired her to speak on their behalf.

In an interview with the New York Daily News immediately after the furore, she pointed out the manufactured nature of the outrage. "America's heart and soul is freedom of expression without fear of reprisal, I find all this feigned indignation about 'Bush bashing' quite disingenuous," she said. "For the Republican Party to pretend this is new to them seems a little fake."

Fake it may be, but we can expect plenty more of the same between now and November.