When standing ovations attack: the cost of over-celebrating

Standing ovations are supposed to signify when something truly extraordinary was just witnessed. But what does it mean when everything gets a standing ovation? Is anything special when everything is special?

Chances are we’ve all seen it: a play, musical, concert, opera, movie, etc., comes to an end and, whether you like it or not, everyone around you has risen in applause. It’s as if this thing was so good that they couldn’t contain their excitement to their seats, and must erupt to their feet for proper exaltation.

In fall of last year I went to Benaroya Hall to see a musician and one of the progenitors of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement in the late 1960's, Caetano Veloso, play his first ever performance in the U.S.. For fans of Veloso and Brazilian psychedelia, it was clearly a monumental night, one made even more so by Veloso’s electric performance.

So maybe when the audience decided a standing ovation was necessary, it was a deserved occasion. It’s not every day you get to see a world music legend rock an auditorium. The ovation lasted for the duration of what then became an obligatory encore.

Several weeks later I went to see legendary Jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders play City Hall.
At 74 years of age it seems Sanders may not be the spry avant garde-st he was in the 1970s. Sanders spent more than half his set time either sitting in a chair at the back of the stage, starring, in what looked to be an angry grimace, at the band, or just off stage, out of sight, while the band played on. When the night was finally called, Sanders received a standing ovation.

Sanders, like Veloso, is a legend in his world of music and has influenced countless others, but his performance that night was disappointing. Given his age and fortitude, it was understandable, but does being a legend mean receiving the automatic prestige of a standing ovation, even if they barely performed?

In December of last year, I saw the Tony-winning political plays about Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, “All the Way” and “The Great Society”. These were phenomenal plays, written with a keen sense of humanity as well as history by the playwright Robert Schenkkan. The only thing that exceeded the writing was the cast, who received a standing ovation.

That same month I saw Stevie Wonder give an amazing sold-out performance at Key Arena. It’s Stevie Wonder; children born in the late 1980s were given sheet music of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” at birth, while social interaction for adults meant everybody was “Superstitious”. Of course Stevie Wonder got a standing ovation.

A few weeks ago I attended the Shoreline production of “The Vagina Monologues.” Again great performances elevated a play that is considered by some to be a product of its time to something worth watching out of its time. I gave the performance I saw a positive review. It was a good production. And it, too, received a standing ovation.

Whether they be legends, aspiring legends, professionals, amateurs or students, talent exists in all sorts of shapes and forms, and appreciating talent is a pretty good way to nurture it. However, if every performance gets a standing ovation, then how do we tell when one performance stands out above others? There’s no way to appreciate something for being extraordinary if everything is treated as being extraordinary.

This might bring up the question of whether we need to appreciate one thing for being greater than another, or if we should indeed treat everything equal, everything great in its own way. Is this not what is taught to us when told we are unique? I argue that whether this is true or not is not the question we should be asking. It’s a red herring.

I believe in celebrating greatness amongst the sum of all because acknowledging something that stands out inspires. It inspires those who did not receive acknowledgement for greatness to do better. I believe in growth and progress. I believe in trying to better ourselves at every opportunity.

And I also believe that if we treat everything equally, if all attempts at expression are met with whatever standing ovation is equivalent to that expression, then I believe growth will only exist so far. At some point everyone will realize that when all forms of expression receive a standing ovation, growth is no longer necessary. There’s no reason for achievement because you’ve already achieved.

This doesn’t mean things can’t be appreciated for being good. This just means that maybe we should consider before standing in applause as something comes to a close, was this so good that I can’t sit in my seat in excitement of appreciation? Or was it solidly good?

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