Are Tina Turner and other legends off-limits to negative criticism?
A week ago I was lucky enough to review the Staples Center stop of Tina Turner's current tour. I'd never seen her before; now I can check off another requirement on the Serious Music Fan Must List. As I watched this 68-year-old bewigged wonder lean over the crowd from her cherry-picker while singing "Nutbush City Limits" I felt as exhilarated as if I'd just strolled up Runyon Canyon on a perfect autumn day -- and I didn't have to worry about running into Robbie Williams on the trail.
Yet to my ears, the show wasn't perfect. In my review, which you can read here, I mentioned that Turner's singing often went off-tune, especially in the concert's first half, and that sometimes her "nice and rough" voice turned into a shriek. It didn't give me pleasure to have to report this; I even briefly considered playing down the show's musical problems and simply celebrating Tina's enduring, spectacular diva-tude.
In the end, I decided that ignoring Turner's flaws would have been disrespectful, a qualifying act not unlike that old male chauvinist saw: "You play pretty good for a girl." She's a real artist, and a musical innovator; she would want me to be honest, I think.
I didn't expect to be roundly shamed for pointing out the bum notes.
I received a mini-flood of negative letters after the review went live at latimes.com. It didn't surprise me that her admirers disagreed with my point of view; as any writer who's lately endured the wrath of the Jonas Brothers contingent knows, fan love often spirals into unwavering, even militant, loyalty. What got me was the ultimate assertion these defenses made, which was that Turner's stature and biography means she shouldn't be judged, period.
"This woman is an inspiration to us all," wrote reader Marlene Leitner. "For you to criticize her in any way is a lack of respect for her talent and professionalism. Wait until you turn 68 (almost 69) and see if you can get out and do half of what she does. Shame on you."
Charlie DiCandilo was more vehement. "YOU REALLY DON'T GET IT, DO YOU," he wrote. "That's all I can say to you......Who do you think go to these shows, DIE-HARD FANS.FANS.FANS....A fan of a super star will go to any and all shows that are available and possible.....A fan loves the artist no matter what.....For you as a columnist to tear apart this show was really out of control."
The entertainment journalist Rona Elliot wrote a lengthy letter to the editor objecting to my review. Elliot expressed a dislike of my approach to criticism in general, calling it "cerebral" and self-serving. She suggested that my assessment of the concert was inaccurate, and she wrote, "At this stage in her life and career, Turner's motivation is clearly to finally complete the circle and acknowledge all the paths that led her to where she is now. To know her sound over the course of these decades allows you to appreciate that Turner's voice is now richer, calmer and more soulful, if possible; her beauty is transcendent and timeless."
Sue Sisk was another fan who felt my report didn't match her experience (though she saw Turner in Anaheim). "As far as our group was concerned Tina's performance at the Honda Center last night was a concert of a lifetime and she more than exceeded our expectations," she wrote. "We had no idea that she even skipped a beat. Her energy is unstoppable and I can only pray that we can all move like her at 68....stilettos and all."
Most of the letters that poured in stressed Turner's veteran status, and suggested that it was wrong for me to criticize her singing either because of her age or because she is such a venerable presence in pop history.
So, here's my question: is there a point when an artist becomes off-limits to criticism?
I've seen many greats in their mid-to-later years, and each deals with the challenges of age differently. Bobby "Blue" Bland developed an odd yowl that apparently served to clear his throat. Iggy Pop, his half-century-old body fit but frankly strange-looking, plays up his own alien presence with antic moves. Cher does a lot of graceful posing in her elaborate costumes. Willie Nelson (who still sounds pretty good) relies on a razor-sharp band.
For many fans, just being in the presence of an elder artist confers residual magic. The notion that the crowd's adulation elevates the artist applies to most arena or stadium shows, but it's especially felt when "legends" perform. This takes us into the realm of pop music as religious ritual. Who are we to judge the gods and goddesses?
If you don't buy that spiritual line, a more earthbound metaphor may apply -- that of the emeritus ceremonially honored for decades of service. Big pop tours have become multimedia extravaganzas, usually centered around images of the star who's performing. For veterans, this allows for a journey back in time. Career-spanning montages remind concertgoers of the high points in a lifetime of music-making. Such retrospective elements transform a tour into a roving tribute; in such context, any judgment could be interpreted as disrespectful of an entire career.
Then there's the aspect of veterans' performances that reminds fans of themselves. Pop has always been a narcissistic experience; we see ourselves reflected in our idols, and are happy when they change along with us. An astoundingly physical performance by someone like Turner, who can still execute impressive moves after a half-century onstage, inspires everyone but truly heartens those in attendance who can relate to the aches and pains of life after 40 (or 50 or 60).
So how does the critic fit within this swirl of emotion surrounding legendary artists? It's not clear. On the one hand, accuracy is important, both for readers who weren't present and for the historical record. In 100 years, a Tina Turner biographer needs to know how her later performances compared to earlier ones. To state the obvious -- pop may be about spectacle and fan love and cultural context, but it's also about music, and the musical quality of a performance is relevant.
On the other hand, holding to a rigid standard of musical perfection is inappropriate for some artists. In the rock era especially, great pop singers have pushed the limits of what conventionally pleases the ear. The "nice and rough" style Turner herself helped develop, grounded in blues and gospel styles, stresses power and emotional directness; it's even arguable that going off-tune enhances its "unstudied" effect.
Part of a pop critic's task is to develop new methods of judgment that not only go beyond earlier standards but directly challenge them. Bob Dylan's nasal declamations are often invoked to describe how a great rock singer differs from a classical, jazz, or even standard pop vocalist. You could also point to Yoko Ono's screams, Snoop Dogg's drawl, and James Hetfield's grunts.
Finally, there's the matter of pop as not exactly performance art, but a life's performance. Is it enough that Turner is still on that stage, escalating her own viewpoint and experiences into an absorbing spectacle? Does her very survival -- not so much as a woman who's endured abuse and told the tale, but as a singer who worked to redefine pop itself so that it could absorb her unique contributions -- deserve to overshadow whatever glitches might confront her in concert?
It's interesting to note that the other kind of artist who earns the fieriest defenses is the fledgling. New stars -- like the Jonas Brothers, for example, or "Idol" winner David Cook -- seem to inspire a similar sympathy; listeners crave success for them, and are very willing to forgive any missteps. This also may reflect the reality of pop as a form of public biography, more than as music. What are we rooting for, in the end? Our favorite songs or our favorite people -- at least as we imagine them?
Photo by Jamie Rector/For The Times