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Fiona Apple and Dave Chappelle: Are Artists Obligated to Appease Disrespectful Audiences?

Last week, Fiona Apple performed at a Louis Vuitton-sponsored show in Tokyo, one that paid tribute to women like Kate Moss, Sofia Coppola, and Catherine Deneuve (the event was called “Timeless Muses”). As you may expect at this type of event, people were chatty and less interested in the music being performed onstage for their entertainment. Annoyed with the noise coming from the crowd, Apple allegedly cursed at the audience stormed off stage following her set. Her behavior, of course, was labeled as “a meltdown,” and the seemingly unstable Apple — whose public acknowledgement of mental illness has never particularly worked in her favor — was yet again portrayed as a loon. 

Apple’s performance at the Louis Vuitton show took place the same day that news broke online of comedian Dave Chappelle’s disastrous stand-up set at Funny or Die’s The Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival in Hartford, Connecticut. In response to visibly and audibly drunk audience members who yelled to the stage to get his attention, Chappelle responded in a way that probably isn’t too surprising: he told them to shut up. When the audience booed and continued to heckle him, he sat on stage until his time was up. Obviously, the media reported that he, too, had a meltdown.

Chappelle and Apple are similar artists in the sense that they have a history of being very outspoken about the stress of making art for a mainstream crowd and the problems with dealing with the press in terms of the motivations behind their creative process. They are also similar in that their fame and critical acclaim allows them to perform at these strange events rather than headlining their own shows, where the audiences would likely be more respectful on account of the fact that they paid solely to see these artists perform. It doesn’t come as a major surprise that the crowds at either the Louis Vuitton event or the Funny or Die festival might be there for the experience of the event rather than the chance to see Apple or Chappelle perform live (although there were certainly fans of both artists at those shows, too).

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As consumers, we expect a lot from the artists we admire and pay money to see perform. We want to hear the songs we love, the familiar jokes that still make us laugh. The artists on stage, however, have to balance what their audience wants with their own artistic aims — Apple, for example, might choose not to perform “Paper Bag” in favor of a new song; Chappelle probably doesn’t want to rehash material from his Comedy Central series seven years after the show ended. It’s a bit unfair, then, to suggest that an artist speaking up and responding to a belligerent or unappreciative or unreasonably demanding crowd as “having a public meltdown.” The fact that Fiona Apple is a woman and Dave Chappelle is an African-American man, and thus face even more restrictive expectations to simply be quiet and perform for us, adds another layer of discomfort to the media’s portrayal of their dissatisfaction with their disrespectful audiences.

Chappelle hasn’t made any statements following the Hartford show, although Ebony published a fantastic piece by Lesli-Ann Lewis arguing that the comedian didn’t have a meltdown at all, but was responding to a crowd of drunk, belligerent, and mostly white guys. Apple, on the other hand, released a statement (well, sort of — she emailed Questlove, who sent the message to Okayplayer) in which she blasted the music writers who reported that she did not finish her set. “They all miss the fact that there is a difference between the back-of-the-room-chatter that is simply annoying, and the operatic drunken blather, or the heckling that is really just INTERRUPTING that makes it impossible for us to do our jobs.” She has a point: if we want people to perform for us, we have to give them the chance. We can’t expect to block them from effectively doing their work and then go on to trash them for not meeting our standards.

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