The Concert and the Career that Consumed Country
By John Bridges, Bruce Dobie, Beverly Keel, and Michael McCall
AUGUST 18, 1997: Wasn't it just a few years ago that Garth Brooks was talking about staying at home with Sandy and the baby? And weren't we all afraid? Without him, what would happen to The Country Music Phenomenon? The Mainstreaming of Music Row? The sudden sophistication of our lives?
Maybe some of us thought he had no more worlds to conquer. But Garth knew better. New York waited, shining in the distance, uppity and cultured and so much holier-than-we. Garth, we knew, would show 'em, and when he showed 'em, he'd be showing 'em for the rest of us too.
But what if it had rained? What if his mic had failed? Would we have to give Planet Hollywood back?
The G Day Invasion
NEW YORK--After decades of being treated like popular music's hillbilly
cousin, country music finally landed its chance in the spotlight when Garth
Brooks hit the 360-foot stage in Central Park last week. Although Brooks is
the best-selling recording artist in U.S. history, and even though country
stars routinely nab the top spots in Billboard's Top 200, country
hasn't been entirely able to overcome its image as a fringe genre, viewed
by some with either amusement or disdain.
It was ironic that Brooks was criticized by some in the New York media for not being country enough. But some of these critics are the same New Yorkers who are resisting a new wave of feel-good suburban culture that they fear is slowly taking over the rest of the nation.
"The concert was part of a larger campaign by Giuliani to market New York City as a safe, family-values city ideal for tourists from the Midwest," Feiler said. "Many elitists in New York, of course, are revolted by this trend. To them, country music--like Disney and the Hard Rock Cafe--represents the dominance of suburban mall culture."
Mark Kriegel of the Daily News said the concert was best understood as an invasion. "The Corporate Sponsors, the creationists of this culture, will not rest until our country is Garth country and until the greatest city on earth is a shopping mall," he wrote. "At that point, all crime fiction will be written by John Grisham, and all centerfold girls will be Jenny McCarthy." This concert was, he said, "only part of a vast, unseen conspiracy to make New York like everywhere else."
It will be up to music's Monday-morning quarterbacks to figure out whether the show boosted Brooks' sales, and country's sales in general. They'll ponder what might have happened if Brooks had not postponed the release of his new album, Sevens, which was originally scheduled to coincide with the show. And the debate over whether Brooks is a humble Oklahoma cowboy or a shrewd businessman will continue.
But in the long run, this concert will go down as the move that forever linked Garth Brooks to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, and Luciano Pavarotti. Eventually, of course, Brooks will fall from his perch atop the country music mountain. But right now, none of that matters. For at least a moment, Garth Brooks was a king.
To deconstruct the event, you didn't need to listen to a single bar of music. To understand it all, you only had to begin with what John Prine once described as a "young man, from a small town, with a very large imagination."
Brooks is about large thinking. I respect that. What he did in Central Park was an attempt to leverage his personality, career, and artistry into something much greater. He has sold more records than Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra, but, when you're Garth Brooks, from Luba, Okla., and your head spins with fame and fortune and you've done so much already, why stop there? Why not sell more than both Sinatra and Jackson combined and, in the process, take country music into the great beyond, making it the dominant musical art form in the United States? Why not make it the dominant musical art form in the world?
Why not play Tiananmen Square next? Or play the moon, live, on the Today show? Or broadcast underwater to all the fishes in the sea?
His vast bigness, hugeness, conquer-all-in-the-name-of-country-music philosophy drives the Brooks juggernaut. Of course, Brooks has a concern for the music. But that concern seems to exist only to serve the higher goal of throwing a really, really big show. When Brooks is asked to identify his musical influences, they are invariably the big '70s rock acts with the big fireworks displays. Garth is big. America loves big. America buys Garth.
Brooks has been trying to take over the world for some time now. For several years, he has been trooping to Europe, evangelizing for the country-music sound and opening up more markets to the industry. Like Microsoft, GM, or any other megacorporation attempting to broaden its consumer base, Brooks (and Gaylord Entertainment's CMT and TNN) have taken on the lion's share of responsibility for creating new country-music consumers around the planet.
To date, they have not been overwhelmingly successful, and CMT was reported by The Tennessean recently to be shelving some of its expansionist plans abroad. But even as Brooks has assumed the role of country music's traveling ambassador, his sales have in fact declined. And when Garth Brooks sneezes, the whole industry gets the flu. Country music's disappointing sales figures in the last year or so are, to some degree, a result of the fact that Brooks isn't selling 10 million compact discs every time he walks into the recording studio.
If the world is Brooks' oyster, he must have realized at some point that, if he's going to conquer the capital of world culture, he isn't going to find it overseas. The capital of world culture is New York. When Garth Brooks thought of playing Central Park, he had ample precedent. For 50 years, country musicians have flocked to Manhattan, sometimes playing in dingy clubs, but quite often trooping up to the stage at the prestigous Carnegie Hall. One night it might be the Berlin Philharmonic; the next night, it might be Ernest Tubb, who played a famous concert there in 1947. In 1966 Buck Owens played Carnegie Hall in a critically acclaimed concert that was captured on vinyl by Capitol Records and has since been reissued by the Country Music Foundation.
Such events were not unusual. New York was the home of entertainment, and art, and culture, and everyone in the art business had to show his stuff there. But Garth Brooks didn't really have to prove himself to Manhattan. More likely, he wanted to tackle it, and much of his inspiration may have come from a financial spreadsheet.
Up close, not exactly personal Garth on the HBO screen|
Despite Garth Brooks' protestations that he feared playing to an empty park, the outcome of the concert was a no-brainer. The event was a success the minute he received permission to play there. Because of the rich irony of a country musician playing to a field of urbanites, it attracted notice. New Yorkers are always game for a freak show, and a guy with a cowboy hat and boots seemed just the thing to hear on a pretty weeknight in the park. The place was packed.
At some level, I do believe that people in the park connected to Garth Brooks' music, considering how unthreatening and mainstream his music is. The crowd in Central Park probably didn't head to the park that night seeking revolution, social change, or dangerous lyrics. If they saw a John Wayne cutout on stage, singing with the intensity and fervor of Up With People, that was probably just fine by them.
Some of the New Yorkers who attended the concert may have sought a deeper connection with Brooks. While I wasn't there, I would venture to say some idealized him in terms of cowboys and the country experience. They may have read into his songs the virtues of self-reliance, the frontier spirit, bravery, and optimism. These are the virtues you don't find in the contemporary/pop bins at record stores anymore; these are all virtues that continue to make Ronald Reagan the most popular living ex-president in America.
Playing Central Park was about the effort of one man trying to relate to America. It didn't take a genius to figure out that people would think it was great to see a cowboy singing in a park. Then again, maybe it did.
In truth, of course, the Central Park extravaganza was completely about Garth Brooks, in both the first-person and third-person sense. It was about media marketing and career positioning. It was about grand gestures and grandstanding celebrity. It was about ego and the megalomania that drives and consumes so many powerful figures. The last thing it was about was music.
It didn't matter. What mattered, what will make the event be seen as a triumphant success, is that Brooks staged an elaborate, attention-getting extravaganza that pounded his name back into the frontal lobes of the American consciousness. Once again, he's perceived as an earnest and intense Southern gentleman who happened to become larger than life, the determined Everyman in an oversized hat who rode in from the range to take his place as an American icon for his times. He's Garth Brooks, the man who took country music to an international audience and became its biggest star, thereby nailing himself a position on the American cultural screen, right alongside Michael Jackson and Madonna.
The conquest of New York City was designed to set a shiny new jewel in the crown of the King of Modern Country Music. All he needed was a clear sky and enough of the converted and the curious to respond to the avalanche of hype and fill the grassy expanses of America's best-known urban park. All he needed was his name in headlines and a good aerial photograph for the soundbites and the front pages. He got all that--so mission accomplished. So what if the show sucked? Who noticed? Who cared?
On an artistic level, however, Garth in Central Park was a disaster. Sloppily played, poorly paced, and featuring more missed notes than karaoke night at the East Nashville American Legion, the show lacked the tightly wrapped dynamics and aw-shucks intensity of Brooks' best performances. These flaws accentuated the phoniness Brooks now flaunts like a master politician: Beware the rich man with the aggressive smile who says "thank you" too often and too easily.
Underground movement Garth was inescapable. Did that make him
irresistible? Photo by Heather Drewes|
But isn't it time to admit that the emperor, the king of the ailing '90s arena-country sound, has lost his clothes? As the close-up view of the HBO cameras made clear, the sincerity, energy, and personality that made Brooks a superstar have since slipped into the most naked forms of shtick and self-parody. That may not have mattered in Central Park, but eventually it will. Sooner or later, it will be about the music, man. He's clearly a master at marketing himself, but will he ever again be as successful at expressing himself? Unless Brooks regains the compelling strengths he presented in such career-making performances as "The Dance" and "Friends in Low Places," all the headlines and all the grand marketing moves will be wasted.
At that time I had thought, "If this Garth Brooks is the kind of guy a lesbian wants to lip-synch, he must be some kind of famous." That, of course, was long before Garth Brooks had sold 62 million records. That was long before he ever dreamed of a concert in Central Park. That was long before he showed us how famous a famous person could actually be.
Now, however, Garth is not the only person whom Garth has made famous. Now everybody who was at Garth's Central Park concert--whether that means 250,000 people or 850,000 people or all 6 million people on the crowded island of Manhattan--is a tiny bit famous as well. The people who stood close to the stage are famous. The people who got caught in gridlock after the concert are famous. The people who picked up trash in the meadow are famous.
And back here at home, that lesbian with the black cowboy hat is one teensy bit more famous too. At some time during Garth's concert the other night, I bet she turned to her girlfriend and said, "Shit, honey, that ain't nothin'. I been doin' him for years."
That is how fame works when you are as famous as Garth--or Madonna or Barbra Streisand or even Luciano Pavarotti. You spread famousness around you, just by your very existing. People do not even have to know what you do, much less enjoy watching you do it. They simply have to know you are out there, and, if you have a concert, they have to go to the trouble to be on hand.
Then, if there are tunes that they recognize--and if you are self-verifiably famous, as Garth is, every tune you sing will be recognizable--they have to be able to hum along. And when you ask them to join in, if they want to prove that they really deserve to share in your famousness, even without a teleprompter, they will know all the words. They will sing very loudly, so that they can only hear themselves. They will sing so loudly that they cannot hear you.
I like to think that, in the history of the world, this is a new kind of famousness. Certainly, it has nothing to do with bobby-soxers fainting for love of Elvis or going damp at the sight of the Beatles. It has a great deal to do with predictability and familiarity. It has very little to do with abject adoration or manic-fan devotion.
It is the sort of fame that is simply there, monumental and unchanging, like Mount Rushmore, something to be witnessed and accepted for its sheer bigness. It attracts crowds that are much like the crowds that only used to show up for the Rose Parade, camping out along the curbsides on bitter-cold mornings, just so they could be there when the floats got rolling, just so they could be there to see what happened next, just so they could mail postcards back to the folks in Des Moines.
But its real crowd is the crowd that had its birth at Woodstock, that curious, turnstile moment when it was finally proven that, if the oblivious throng out front is big enough, the show onstage is scarcely of any importance at all. The show is only important because it is an excuse to accumulate the audience.
Without thousands and thousands of them, the crowd knows full well, this could never be anything more than a little stage show that could be happening anywhere. And a little stage show could never bring their sort of crowd out on a Thursday evening. On the other hand, they know that, if they all show up, there will be hundreds of thousands of them out there, jostling one another and walking around with "HBO" shaved into their buzz cuts. And that, they know, is the way to spend a Thursday night.
Garth Brooks wasn't fooling anybody when he thanked the milling grege for coming to his concert. Once they had seen the posters and heard the radio ads, once it struck them that, if they showed up, this could be really big--once they realized that this was a chance to be part of a million people and to get stuck in some really god-awful traffic--they really had no choice.
Looking out over the crowd as it sang "Unanswered Prayers," Garth Brooks' eyes got that crazed, fixated gleam they get from time to time. But this time his eyes had taken on a maniacal glint that suggested Goebbels staring out at a Nremberg rally. When the crowd had finished its final chorus, he screamed to the beneficent heavens, "This is why New York City!" I'm not sure exactly what he meant; I figure it had to be something like, "To show that I can!"
There is, however, a problem with this kind of fame. It eats a career alive; eventually, it becomes all the career there is. Either you end up like Streisand, immobilized with stage fright, or like Madonna, floundering from lousy movie to lousy movie. Or you end up like Pavarotti, trotting out "O Sole Mio" because you know people will start applauding the second they hear the introduction.
That's what happens to you once you've filled a few football stadiums. Once you've been to the arena, the arena is the only place you can go.
In retrospect, I suppose, I'm grateful for having seen a lesbian do Garth drag years ago in a beer bar. And I hope she's still out there lip-synching his records. We need her in this world. She's probably as close to the real Garth as we'll ever get again.
Many Manhattanites weren't quite sure what that meant, but even jaded New Yorkers were impressed by the event's marketing and publicity, a joint effort of Brooks, HBO, and the city of New York. A 40-foot photo of a somber yet boyish Brooks was displayed in Times Square, while subways and telephone booths were plastered with concert ads. Signs that usually alert drivers to upcoming road hazards had been commandeered to proclaim Brooks' upcoming appearance, and callers placed on hold by the city's Park Department heard Brooks instead of the usual Dionne Warwick. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proclaimed Thursday "Garth Brooks Day in New York"; there wasn't a local news program that missed hyping the show, repeating the message, "See Garth Brooks. Use mass transit," in hopes of avoiding traffic congestion that had already been dubbed "Garthlock."
Coconuts record store on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 51st Street, just across from Radio City Music Hall, dedicated an entire window to Brooks. A sign in an Upper West Side bar read, "The Works Welcome Garth Brooks. $1 Frozen Maragaritas." Not to be outdone, an Upper East Side store advertised, "Wines sold COLD for the Garth Brooks concert."
Working on a full house They came early. They waited for a long
time. Photo by Beverly Keel|
In a sobering moment that was repeated frequently at dinner conversations throughout the city, no one at the table, including another online editor and a Time/Warner public relations executive, could name one Brooks song.
Make no mistake: This was an event, not a concert. The focus was on the turnout, not the tunes. Would Brooks' audience surpass the 600,000 who attended a similar concert by Paul Simon, setting a new record? While promoters initially predicted nearly a million-man line dance, city officials later downsized the number to 250,000, noting that the Simon numbers had been inflated.
Like any major outdoor event, Brookstock attracted all colors and ages, although a good percentage of the audience was young. Gay and straight couples mingled among the crowds that included whites and blacks, as well as Asians and Indians, hailing from the Bronx and Boise, Staten Island and Switzerland. Tattoos and body piercings were certainly more prevalent than cowboy hats and boots. After battling police and blockades that herded the crowds like cattle into the various areas of the park, the audience settled down on their blankets, leaving only to buy $5 ice-cream cones and $3 bottles of water. Some kissed, others slept. A faint smell of marijuana could be detected on a back hill.
This wasn't your typical New York audience--a Confederate flag flew boldly about 50 yards from the stage--but it wasn't your typical New York August night either. The park's trees gently swayed in 72-degree twilight, and New Yorkers were being nice. In a city known for its crime, there were only two arrests--one for disorderly conduct and the other for assaulting an officer. "It's like we're not in New York," one New Yorker noted.
Shameless self-promotion Garth in Times Square. At least they
didn't ask him to pose for the Calvin Klein ad. Photo by Heather
Deniece Givens, a thirtysomething black woman from upstate New York, packed up her four kids--ages 4, 7, 10, and 12--at 3 p.m. and made the hour-long trek to the city. "I did it for Garth," she said. "I think he's very sweet, and he's a family man."
"And he's cute," her daughter interjected.
John O'Brien, 22, looked like the standard rock-concert fan: mustache, long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, black Who T-shirt, jeans, and brown construction boots. The Long Islander came to the concert with his 16-year-old brother, Danny, who sported a black Kiss T-shirt. "I'm mostly a rock fan, but I like some country," said John, who had arrived at 4:30 p.m. "Our sister is in the Garth Brooks Fan Club. She wanted us to go with her, and then she got stuck working. The irony is, we're here and she isn't."
Even the people in the VIP area weren't quite sure what to expect. Some, like Richard Kind, the actor who used to play the doctor on Mad About You, swayed as they sang along with "Friends in Low Places," but others seemed to remain unimpressed. Actor Ray Liotta and denim-clad New York Gov. George Pataki were on hand, as were Nashvillians such as Country Music Association executive director Ed Benson, MCA's Renee White, artists manager Anastasia Pruitt, and music-business couple Marion and Brian Williams.
Meanwhile, other country singers in town went unnoticed. Martina McBride, whose husband works for Brooks, held a listening session for her new album, and Lorrie Morgan was scheduled to sing over the weekend at the Beacon Theater. Shania Twain and husband/producer Mutt Lange were spotted at Bergdorf Goodman.
After the show, the crowd swarmed the streets, returning to the realities of New York's traffic. Throngs of boisterous young men, singing "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," strolled down the center of Fifth Avenue in the Upper 90s. A bootleg T-shirt vendor, who had slashed his prices in half after the show, set up shop not far from an artist displaying his wares and a "Free Tibet" sign. Across the street, enacting an updated scene from Bonfire of the Vanities, a man talked on his cellular phone while walking his dog in front of a tony apartment building, apparently oblivious to the onslaught.--Beverly Keel
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