Sunday, July 17, 2011

Audience Approval

Tom Bartlett, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has an amusing post on who gets a standing ovation  for a TED talk. Applause, when you think about it, is pretty bizarre, no? Clapping our hands together vigorously to indicate approval? Standing, while clapping our hands together, to show super approval?

It's no weirder, I suppose, than rock concert audience members holding up cigarette lighters during a power ballad (for young people that currently use a cell phone: sorry, it's not the same--no flicker). We no longer yell "huzzah!" but we do still cry, "bravo!" and, in other venues, "woooooh!" Today, we "like" messages by clicking a symbol on a keyboard, but that's really no match for the forceful and sustained physicality ("thunderous applause", etc.) of audience approval in the 19th century.

There is a BBC radio piece on the history of applause, which is useful. Otherwise, Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, has dug up fascinating details about the increasingly limited role of spontaneous applause at classical music concerts. London's The Musical Times of July 1, 1897 (pp. 448-449) offers some insights, as well, particularly regarding changes in the relationship between applause and gender:
Thirty years ago it was hardly "good form" for a lady to applaud. She allowed her brothers or sons of husband to express her approval vicariously. But emancipation and the athletic education of our Amazons have changed all that. In applause nowadays, as in everything else, dux femina facti, and when a Paderewski plays lovely woman does not merely clap her lily-white hands, but she stamps her fairy feet and thumps on the floor with her elegant parasol or en-tout-cas. And certainly musicians are not likely to resent the innovation, for they would scout as a counsel of perfection the maxim that "virtuosity is its own reward." No; it may be a sign of weakness, but musicians, when they perform in public, like to be applauded, and as fully three-fourths of the tribe of conert-goers are of the fair sex, it is just as well, in the interest of the performer, that women should have abandoned their old prejudice against testifying their approval in the way practised by the mere male person.
I need more, though. Has anyone done a serious scholarly history of applause? If women and men, or refined and non-refined persons, were expected to show appreciation differently at concerts in the past, were fans and non-fans doing the same? How exactly? How do we vary our approval in today's digital age?

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