Standing Ovations and “Discrimination”

My wife the opera singer and university professor has been involved in pretty much all levels of public performance and voice and opera teaching, production, and administration over more than three decades…and one of the most appalling changes she [and I as well] has noticed is the shift from a standing ovation being an infrequent occurrence after a performance to it becoming apparently almost obligatory. She is certainly not the only one in the field who has noted this. Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, made the same observation, especially in regard to Broadway plays, several years ago.

There are doubtless numerous reasons for this shift, one certainly being the aging of generations taught to believe that everyone is “wonderful,” but there are two others that likely play an equal part in this decline of apparent ability, or unwillingness, to judge quality, particularly in the arts. The first is a growing belief that, in areas of society where qualitative excellence cannot be quantified or measured “objectively,” everyone’s opinion is equal, and that what one likes is always excellent, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is simply out of step.

The other contributing factor is an almost inchoate belief within current society that suggests that any judgment embodying negativity, or even a belief that competence is not excellence, is somehow “bad.”  This is evidenced implicitly by the shift in the word “discrimination” over the past fifty years.  At one time, to show discrimination meant the ability to distinguish between good and bad, to be able to distinguish between what was good, very good, or excellent.  Now, to discriminate means to show bias or prejudice, a totally negative meaning with unfavorable connotations as well.  At present, there does not exist a single word in the English language that conveys approvingly the idea of being able to make such judgments.  Because simple and direct words are the strongest, this lack effectively, if you will, denigrates the entire concept of constructive judgment or criticism.  By the same token, critical judgment now carries the connotation, if not the denotation, of severity or negativity.

Since when is NOT giving a standing ovation a measure of negativity?  Yet it appears that audiences have come to feel that “mere” applause is not enough. 

Then again, perhaps I’ve missed it all, and standing ovations are merely the supersized version of applause, the symptom of a society that always wants more, whether it’s useful or healthy.   

10 thoughts on “Standing Ovations and “Discrimination””

  1. Alan says:

    You are not the first, nor is your wife, to notice this. I attended a show off Broadway perhaps seven or eight years ago. The show was decent, but I heard several parts of the music that were obviously off. There were errors in timing and effects. A myriad list of minor things, both technical and acting related. The show, over all, was quite decent. I enjoyed it. But I did not feel it rated standing up to clap. Yet the majority of the theater did just that.

    I received several ugly looks when I remained seated, though still clapping.

    When I attended a comedian’s show five years ago I barely clapped, though most people stood to clap for him. The comedy routine left me feeling blah and dull. The jokes were tired and worn from his previous uses of them in other shows.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with being discerning when applying your appreciation. Be it financially, vocally or simply applause.

  2. Tim says:

    Well done LEM and Alan

    I attended a promenade concert in the Albert Hall (London). The music was good but not outstanding and I also did not stand but clapped. I also received ugly looks.

    It is a little like Academia. a First is now awarded based on marks not on brilliance. Oxford and Cambridge now award a staggeringly high percentage of first degrees. In my day a first was only awarded for really thinking out of the box and in some subjects no firsts were awarded at all in some years.

  3. Esquire says:

    Sadly, i’ve seen this even in professional conferences at the conclusion of a motivational speech. As a university student, in the studio arts, it took quite a bit of encouragement by the instructor to begin to point out mistakes and flaws in others’ work. I see that in our court ordered clinical treatment programs as a skill taught to participants in recovery. Perhaps this is a skill not taught anymore? One not valued by contemporary culture?

  4. Bob Vowell says:

    Tips are encouraged everywhere

    People are constantly telling police officer, Firefighters, EMS and Military members Thank You for your service.

    Standing ovations, raucous applause and cheering for anything.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with lack of discrimination but more the polite fiction we surround ourselves with to get through the day in society. We feel as a society that everything that is done is worthy of approval for politeness sake.

    Maybe this is also part of the reason the anonymity of the internet allows people to vent their rage at anything that crosses their path. Its just the pendulum swinging the opposite way because everyone feels they have to show approval for everything in their “real” life

  5. Tom says:

    This is a world of lies. I hate public gatherings because of the hypocrisy of excellence through platitudes when there is no excellence. I understand that constructive criticism or even saying or doing nothing is difficult; but, are we in this societal situation because of our politics, education, genetics or what? In many of your novels people can tell when their opponents are not honest or trustworthy; how is it that we are not able to cope with this in our daily interactions with others? Are we so afraid of the criticism of others that we will not be honest when dealing with people?

    My pet peeve with the Opera and other stage productions is the interruption of the action and music by the mindless bravo’s and bravisimo’s ( I realize the original operas were lunchtime recitals but still…).

  6. Jim S says:

    Perhaps I’m biased because my profession is included — but I don’t equate thanking a police officer, a fire fighter, paramedic, or a military service member for their service as excessive. Quite often, these people are not thanked for their service — but instead insulted. That’s not to say that any public servant is entitled to special recognition or favorable services, etc, but I wouldn’t begrudge the rare thank you. You do thank someone who holds the door for you, right?

    But… on the topic of standing ovations (and many other accolades)… They’ve definitely been cheapened by overuse and by being given for little more than showing up. Too many people give in to the pressure to follow the crowd when a few rise. People no longer discriminate between good or bad; they reward merely meeting expectations. This is tied to grade inflation, employee performance appraisals… all sort of things. The idea of a “gentleman’s C” for showing up and doing the minimum requirements has become an expectation of an A. Employees who show up, know the basics of their job, and don’t screw up expect “exceeds expectations” or higher on evaluations. (Why would an employee be kept if they don’t “meet expectations”?) I don’t know the solution — because we’ve awarded and praised mediocrity for so long that it’s become ingrained.

  7. CRM says:

    I suspect that this might be a result of a simple lack of experience (on the part of the general public) with live performances. Recorded media in music and drama are vastly more prevalent and accessible than live performances. That leads to a lack of discrimination on the part of the audiences–most of us simply haven’t seen enough live shows to have reasonable expectations, or to be able to tell a professional performance from an amateur one. It’s an issue of audience experience and education.

    That being said, if I’m sitting in cramped seat in a crowded theater, and the rest of the audience is standing up around me and looming over me, I start feeling claustrophobic, so I’ll stand up to avoid having a panic attack. And also to stretch my legs.

  8. Rehcra says:

    I agree with CRM about the reasons behind it. Whatever reasoning for it is beside the point. Edict over time changes and when one does not follow proper edict it is expected to get ‘the look’ from the general public. You can’t act as if you are taking a high ground here either because (like it or not) clearly the meaning behind the applause has changed. An insult/slur is one whether you feel it should be or not. And under the circumstances I would say not clapping is probably more affronting then what ever agitation people feel towards having proper edict award mundane performances.

    Language is always evolving, we adapt or lose the ability to communicate.


  9. Scott says:

    A recent study has shown that the amount of applause received has more to do with the other members of the audience than the performance itself.


  10. Wine Guy says:

    A standing ovation should be like a 25% tip: given for outstanding performance.

    A ‘standing O’ seems to be de rigeur at the local college performances for the senior musical recitals even when several were (clearly) off the mark. It’s like giving every kid who plays for a team a participation trophy that coincidentally looks just like the ‘MVP’ ‘Most Improved’ and ‘Johnny Hustle / Jane Hustle’ trophies.

    Now, I don’t say that effort should not be rewarded: applause is fine if deserved, but I’ve received a couple looks and muttered comments when I don’t clap/stand/etc. at shows and recitals. I only address the issue if the person directly engages me, otherwise I am fine with that person thinking I’m a curmudgeon (because I kinda am one).

    And to quote Taylor Mali, “I have a policy about honesty and ass-kicking which is ‘If you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.’ ” The gentleman to my left at ‘A Chorus Line’ got an earful after he tried to call me out.

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