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Lester Bangs on Contempt for Your Audience

Lester Bangs on Contempt for Your Audience
Photo by Tallie Robinson / Unsplash

The famous rock critic of the 60s and 70s Lester Bangs once said:

“The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience. Those who indulge in it will ultimately reap the scorn of those they’ve dumped on whether they live forever like Andy Paleface Warhol or die fashionably early like Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. The two things that distinguish those deaths from Elvis’s (he and they having drug habits vaguely in common) were that all of them died on the outside looking in and none of them took their audience for granted.”

Bangs is writing a piece shortly after the death of Elvis. He believed with all his soul the best artists understood connection with the audience. You can’t show contempt to the hands that feed you. Elvis certainly understood this during his “Fat Elvis” days of the late 70s. Without showing appreciation for his fans in the 50s and 60s those last shows would’ve never happened.

Contempt for the audience is guaranteed death of the artist (literally and metaphorically in some cases). I’d argue some of the “nostalgia” tours happening around the world with bands from the 80s and 90s prove the point. Despite typically being one-hit-wonders most of these bands appreciate their fans and made a second act of it.

Okay, well and good. But you may ask: don’t we make art primarily for ourselves? What happens if we live for the response of the audience? Good point.

Yes and no. Artists can’t live for the applause, clicks, and thumbs up of the fans. You’ll go crazy. Fans are fickle. We need an identity rooted in deeper realties. For another time.

But having contempt for your audience, tribe, or community is something else.

When I was a younger pastor, I misunderstood these truths. I’d see passionate preachers call the congregation to obedience, faith, and repentance. All in the name of truth and love. Not strange in church world. But what I experienced felt less like love, and more contempt. Something in the voices of these preachers said: I don’t like you, love you, and you’re in the way of what I’m trying to build.

Maybe a textbook definition of contempt will help:

“… the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.”

When a preacher has a sense of contempt, they believe they are better, more worthy, and beyond the audience or congregation. Dare we say worthless. Contempt has nothing to do with challenging a people to faithful and loving lives, it is about superiority. You can hear the difference.

Years ago, I went to a Creed show, yes that Creed. The opening band was Our Lady of Peace. During the show they continued to berate and curse down the audience for not singing and standing up. They were engaging in the game of contempt.

I’m not sure why the band from Canada was so upset with us. But I know Our Lady of Peace is not around any longer. Or at least, not in the music consciousness as they once were. Is it because of their contempt? Not sure.

When a band, preacher, President, or human shows contempt to the people within their reach, it never ends well. Yes, we make art for ourselves. We’d make it even if we never made a nickel. But contempt for your community, audience, and fan base will lead to a death spiral.

So why is contempt for an audience the cardinal sin of any performer? Is there a better way?

Yes, gratitude and love.

What I misunderstood was many of those preachers were thinking they were engaged in love, but it manifested as contempt. They wanted good for the congregation. The challenge was for them to live flourishing lives. Yet, sometimes we have to consider our tone and language. Or it comes off as contempt, not love. These preachers were standing above the people, not with them. They were not grateful for the community and it appeared: I’m better than you.

We see this play out in the locker rooms of professional sports teams when the star player no longer spends time with his teammates. The lead singer of a band who believes the entire success of the group is on his shoulders.

So how can we show we’re not superior to our audiences? What language can I use to say: we're in this together? How do we show appreciation for the people who consume our content, art, or messages? I think the best artists make it clear were all a big family experiencing a thing, whatever that thing is. No teacher is above, beyond, or superior to the student. They continually show gratitude and love to the people who support them.

Many years ago, when I saw myself leaning towards contempt, I started praying simple prayers: help me love these people when they don’t seem to love back. Help me create and work hard even when nothing is being noticed or results are minimal. Help me show grace knowing we're all broken and imperfect humans. Help me serve “with” the people not above or in front of them. Help me live with a sense of gratitude for the work I get to do, and the people I get to do it with.

These aren’t perfect ways to fight contempt. But it’s a start. We’d rather end up like Elvis, not Our Lady of Peace. Okay, maybe terrible examples.

But I know a posture of love and gratitude will fight any residue of contempt in our hearts.