“Give the People What They Want”

We saw the “Tina Turner Musical” this week, and a brief moment of the narrative has stayed with me, touched me deeply, and seems to speak deep truth about our need to be entertained, and perhaps even our continued fascination with Donald Trump.

I know, that’s a lot.

You might think the Trump association has something to do with Ike. But that’s not really it. Yes, when they got to the part of the narrative when Tina leaves Ike —a real life event that happened within a mile of where we were watching the fictionalized version— I was literally bawling.

That part of the story was soooo well done, and is still remarkable to consider. It seems important to remember just how badly it could have gone for Tina.
If that hotel clerk hadn’t given her a room…
If —as she stumbled across a highway I drive every day now— she had been hit by a car…

That’s what makes it such a powerful story now. Her July 4th “Independence Day” changed her life and would eventually the history of music.
The little scene I’m talking about happens just before all this.

Tina is not doing well. She’s just overdosed. The narrative suggests a suicide attempt. She’s near death. And, of all people, her Mother is called back to the stage.

Her Mother who, according the narrative, has also been abusive and berating to Tina throughout her life, berates her one more time, in a move that somehow pulls Tina out of a drugged out stupor, just enough to get back up on a stage. What happens next is the moment that has stayed with me.

I need to now slowly describe what happened in about five real-time seconds of dialogue, action, music, and audience response…

Tina is still drugged, still recovering from the pills. The “Ike and Tina” review is back on. She is now behind the mic. She’s clearly groggy, clearly not well. Clearly in very bad shape.

But, the show is going on, and she’s dressed in that iconic shimmering, sequined, dress.

And as the character of her Mother exits the stage, simultaneously, a Telecaster chord starts an insistent and familiar rhythm. They are the slow, unmistakable chords to the “Ike and Tina” version of “Proud Mary.” Everybody knows them.

And these next few things things happen simultaneously…

The actual Music Hall audience recognizes the chords, and cheers…
Tina wavers behind the mic, in her drugged stupor…
And, over her shoulder, the character of her Mother sarcastically quips…

“Go on, Tina…give the people what they want…”

And I just burst into tears at the poignancy.

“Give the people what they want.”

It is what we want.

We, the audience that night, WE fell right into the trap.

Suddenly, it was all too real. Suddenly, our cheers and that quip become a metaphor for everything wrong with…well, everything in American culture.

WE…the audience…the public… we want that song…those chords…that hit of dopamine memory…
We want to be entertained, no matter the cost to the singer.

And suddenly, I just couldn’t clap along with the rest of the audience. I was literally crying. Suddenly, I felt convicted, indicted, for my own part in this exploitative infotainment culture we all swim in today.

It felt like a shot between the eyes. I was King David, and the narrative moment was the Prophet Nathan whispering, “You are the man.”

“Give the people what they want,” the Mother sneers. And I gasped at the prophetic indictment of us all.

None of us were blameless.
Not Ike.
Not her Mother.
Not all those audiences in all those “Ike and Tina” shows.
Not even us in that Music Hall that night, reflexively cheering those chords, despite Tina’s condition and her Mother’s sneer.

“Give the people what they want.”


We’re all a “brand” now.
We’re all always aware of the stage…even little kids are now.
From our Instagram feeds, to “reality” shows, we’re all both consumers and producers of entertainment now.

But at what cost?
To us?
To performers?

Bread and circuses.
Bread and circuses.
And we don’t even see it.

I am not saying that all entertainment is bad. Please don’t misread this. I’m all for good stories, great songs, and healthy ways to be transported out of the misery of the modern world. (This musical was a fine example of great entertainment)

But, dear God, our appetite to be entertained…it feels limitless.

Donald Trump is an entertainer.
He is a master at giving the people what they want.

He seems to have no shame about anything, because he has totally accepted the premise that being a character for our entertainment is far more lucrative than being an actual leader in the actual real world of things, ideas, and nations.

He’s PT Barnum, Huey Long, and QVC rolled into one. He’s the logical extension of all of them.

As I’ve said many times since 2016, our culture created Donald Trump. We called him forth, out the primordial soup of bits, bytes, and glowing screens. And if it wasn’t him, it would be somebody else.
He’s just the singer on the stage, playing a role. He’s not addicted to pills (that we know of) but is addicted to the adoration of an audience; which is his side of the sick dynamic of “giving the people what they want.”

And as long as enough of us are still cheering him, I’m very confident he’ll keep strumming his chords, and blowing his dog whistles.

I keep thinking back to something DL Hughley said, soon after Trump’s election. He said that Barack Obama was who America wanted to be, but that Donald Trump was who we are.

That still seems right to me. And while “who we are” is a culture still far too xenophobic and racist, perhaps even more lethally, “who we are” is also a culture that demands to be entertained, rather than informed. The nexus point between those two has always been a breeding ground for dangereous, populist, hucksters.

Trump absolutely, positively, knows how to give our entertainment-addicted culture what it wants.

As for Tina Turner, the second half of the musical tells her remarkable story of resilience and transformation. Even “Proud Mary” gets redeemed.

At the very end, in an encore, the band and lead character come back and play the song a second time. The “Tina Turner Version.”

The message is that time has passed, Ike is gone, and SHE has redeemed this song just as intentionally and resolutely as she also claimed her name.

And what about us?
What will we do?

As this election season unfolds, can we really see and embrace the life and death choices still before us?

Democracy is still on the ballot.
The future of our Republic is still at stake.
Do enough of us understand this?
Or will too many of us get played again by the chords Trump strums so well?

“Give the people what they want…”

OK. Sure.

But it might still kill us all.

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