“Are there any paranoids in the audience tonight?”
With those caustic words, Roger Waters introduced “Run Like Hell” in concert in 1980. Waters continues to taunt and provoke his audience 37 years later when he performs music from his Pink Floyd catalog and solo career, often by injecting venomous statements against President Elect Donald Trump from the stage.
When he taunts an audience and redefines his music in a political context, he leads them into a different relationship between performer and audience, one characterized by confrontation, stimulation, and discussion. I live in a family of artists. We often have conversations about the role of the artist to make an audience uncomfortable — to confront, to reveal, and to invoke anger even. It’s sometimes necessary to create discomfort if you’re going to lead an audience.
There is a time and place for leading an audience by challenging them, and consequences to be paid for doing so (as Jim Morrison demonstrated in 1969 at the infamous Miami concert that led to his arrest for public indecency). And, there is a time and place to make an audience feel warm, uplifted, and comfortable. I want to uplift people and make them feel comfortable when I act each year in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. But I don’t want to uplift necessarily when I write fiction, and neither does my wife, Janice Deal, in her short stories. We both want to lead an audience in our writing, as does our daughter, Marion Deal, in her writing and public speaking. Leading an audience means looking deep inside yourself and taking a risk. You know you’re succeeding when you evoke a reaction. It just might not be a happy reaction.
Case in point: back in the 1970s, Alice Cooper made popular shock rock by putting on concerts that featured imagery and theater that some might consider grotesque, such as a decapitated baby dolls and guillotines. Critics hated Alice Cooper and thought his concerts to be stupid and gimmicky. And even their audience sometimes recoiled in horror. But Vincent Furnier, who headed the band and adopted the name Alice Cooper for himself as a solo act, knew what they were doing.
The band’s onstage behavior was intended to create an audience reaction by synthesizing forms of horror and fantasy, burlesque and rock and roll, shaped by Furnier’s own passion for movies and visual storytelling. He satirized the then-noble notion of rock star as poet and social change agent by creating a villain who sang hit songs only to be executed onstage. He made an artistic statement and was leading the audience in another direction toward a glam rock movement would propel artists such as David Bowie to fame.
In the book What You Want Is in the Limo, an excellent narrative about rock and roll in 1973, Michael Walker discusses Alice Cooper’s rise to fame. Alice Cooper tells Walker, “We never went onstage with the attitude of, ‘Gosh, I hope you like us tonight.’ We’d take them by the throat and shake them and never, ever give them a chance to breathe.”
During one concert in 1969, the band’s in-your-face style so offended an auditorium full of 3,000 people that they all fled the show within about 15 minutes. But one man in the crowd, Shep Gordon, stuck around, mesmerized by Alice Cooper’s ability to move an audience. He went on to manage the band. As Alice Cooper told Michael Walker in What You Want Is in the Limo, Gordon was “clapping like a seal. ‘You cleared the auditorium in fifteen minutes!” he marveled. “Three thousand people in fifteen minutes . . . I don’t care if they fucking hated you. It’s mass movement. There’s power and money in that.'”
Gordon also recalled, “I had never seen such a strong negative reaction. People hated Alice, and I knew that anyone who could generate such a strong negative energy had the potential to be a star, if the handling of the situation was right.”