America Could Use Fewer Standing Ovations, More Booing

Why we can't just stay in our seats and clap.

If you’ve been watching American Idol this season (and I am just outing myself here and telling you I have), you know that the quality of contestants this year has been judged by most observers of such things as a marked improvement over the last several editions. Tonight, the top nine contestants will forge on in their pursuit of reality-television glory, singing songs from the ’80s, which pretty much guarantees that DeAndre Brackensick will deliver an ear-shattering rendition of “When Doves Cry.” But the leonine DeAndre had a pretty good week last week: He got a standing ovation from the judges. So did four of his other competitors. That means half of the contestants—including the guy who got voted off the next night—motivated the panel to rise from its chairs in raucous applause.

Watching, the only thing I could think was, Simon Cowell would have never gotten out of his chair for that. In fact, in the nine seasons he was on the program, I can only remember one occasion when Cowell rose to give a standing ovation for a performance.

There was a reason for that, and it goes to the heart of why Cowell was the star of the series, and why he’s left such a gaping hole since he departed. He was a tough critic, he had high standards, and only a truly remarkable feat was going to get him to stand up.

And that is how it should be. The current ubiquity of the standing ovation is nothing less than a withering indictment of our entire “Everyone’s a winner” culture, where merely showing up gets you a blue ribbon and a hug. But if we’re hooting and stomping and standing for everyone, how do we recognize those who have risen above the pack? And how do we motivate people to rise above the pack, when they’re feted just as much for mediocrity?

When Octavia Spencer won her Academy Award in February for The Help, the audience rose. She’d given a fine performance, and no doubt was a deserving winner. But she wasn’t that good. I couldn’t help feeling that there was a tinge of white guilt to the whole thing (“See? Black people can win Oscars!”), which by this point we should be well over. Deon Cole, an African-American writer for Conan O’Brien’s show, evidently felt the same way: In a hilarious post-Oscars sketch, he went around the office doing menial tasks like making photocopies, only to find himself surrounded by earnest white people, standing and applauding his efforts.

The standing-ovation epidemic is not about race, but many things. It’s about parents’ revolting sycophancy toward their own children, greeting every B on the report card or fourth-place finish in softball with the same faux-cheeriness they used to gush encouragement during potty training (“Good for you!! So proud of you!!”). It’s about the boomerang of political correctness now coming to bite us all in the ass, where unless you’re in politics even mild critique is labeled as personal attack. Which has had the tragic result of bringing all of us to our feet over and over, applauding anyone for anything.

I caught a perfectly pleasant show at the Wilma recently but sat, resolute, as the crowd went wild around me standing at the final curtain. I felt like saying, For what? Yes, applaud—they did a decent job. But was it extraordinary? Did it transport you? Will you be talking about this five years from now? When I took my mother to the Orchestra’s annual Christmas concert, similar hullabaloo erupted. I was only amazed that people didn’t jump up in the middle for newscaster Pat Ciarrocchi’s reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas. Maybe next year.

It’s actually worse on Broadway. No less an authority than Stephen Sondheim, someone who deserves every standing O he gets, has gone on the record to say, “Every show now gets a standing ovation, but I think if you’re really moved, you don’t stand. They want to remind themselves that it’s an occasion—they’re applauding themselves.” With ticket prices often topping $150, perhaps that’s understandable. But it’s not the spirit of the gesture.

The blogger Jason Cochran wrote a thoughtful post last year of how he had been at a performance of the musical The Addams Family, which the next day the Times labeled “ghastly” and “a collapsing tomb,” and yet the audience predictably leapt to its feet at the close. “Two decades ago, standing ovations were awarded mostly on merit,” he wrote. “Only the upper echelon of performances earned them. Almost all performances, even superior ones, were congratulated by a hearty, but seated, round of applause. That modulated sign of respect was enough to please even a veteran performer, and if an actor was fortunate enough to see a crowd driven to its feet, a career could instantly be made. Now, though, audiences rise as if compelled by the same machinery that makes the curtains fall.”

I’m not suggesting we should never stand—how terrible would it be if no one in Congress stood when the President entered to deliver the State of the Union? But that event, once stately and somber, has in recent times also taken on the patina of the cartoonish, in no small measure due to the relentless standing of the sitting President’s party as he either lauds them or takes the other side to task. I think we’d be better off with a construct more akin go the Brits’ “Prime Minister’s Questions,” which include lusty booing and probably the occasional chucking of a shoe.

C’mon, Philly, if anyone is qualified to lead a comeback of good booing, it’s us. So the next time you see something awful, boo. And the next time you see something decent, applaud—but for God’s sake, stay in your seat.