I am not sure when I first became aware of the oeuvre of the “singer” Jennifer Lopez – she of the two-note vocal range – but it may well have been when I was living in Kazakhstan in late 1999. As the new millennium approached, her track “Waiting for Tonight” was in heavy rotation on the German music channel I got with my satellite TV package. It was utterly rotten, but better than the works of Die Fantastischen Vier, so I sometimes let it play out.
Anyway, that early association of J-Lo + Central Asian autocracy might explain why I was neither shocked nor all that bothered when word got out that Jenny from the Block had performed for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the dictator of Turkmenistan. I mean: commercial pop star accepts cash for performance – whoa, stop the presses.
Yes, yes, I know, Berdymukhamedov is a nasty man. That is true. But you know what? I recall that when I was in Kazakhstan, Vanessa Mae – now largely forgotten but at that time considered a superhot pop/classical act – played in the capital Astana during the New Year celebrations and nobody cared. Indeed, lots of pop stars have been performing for shady types in oppressive post-Soviet regimes for two decades now. But since J-Lo is not yet totally washed up, all of a sudden it’s news.
Of course, J-Lo’s entourage claimed that she would not have performed for Berdymukhamedov had she known who he is – apparently none of them had heard of this thing called “Google.” But then a human rights organization revealed that she’s raked in as much as $10 million over the years performing in Azerbaijan, Belarus and elsewhere and has even serenaded the ever-charming Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, so the professed innocence seems dubious.
She’s hardly alone in her penchant for entertaining dodgy geezers, of course – Beyonce and Mariah Carey once sang for members of Gaddafi’s family; Sting hung out with Islam Karimov’s daughter for ca$h; and lots of celebrities have chilled at Kadyrov’s expense, from Hilary Swank to Gerard Depardieu.
It’s the same story every time (unless you’re Depardieu, who doesn’t care): “Oh I didn’t know…” even as they’re trousering a wad of dollars, which some have later given away out of sincere regret/for face-saving PR (delete as appropriate). You can believe their claims of ignorance if you like but, you know, Gaddafi was kind of famous and as I said, there’s this thing called Google…
It’s the selectiveness of the outrage that bothers me. You see, all of these celebrities are clear about what they do – they perform for money. J-Lo is a businesswoman and she does business in dodgy places, like ExxonMobil or Coke or Apple. But she’s a trivial person; she doesn’t matter. And if we are going to savage her, then there are some bigger targets we ought to focus on first.
Like Tony Blair for instance: His consulting agency Tony Blair Associates is currently advising the government of Kazakhstan in exchange for buckets of cash. That’s much dodgier than an aging single mother of two dancing for some khan in the desert; indeed dancing for the khan is more honorable – it’s an ancient art and comes free of Tony Blair’s self-righteous, self-exculpatory blather.
Or what about Bill Clinton, everybody’s favorite vegan ex-president? He makes millions each year blathering away to foreigners; a speech from Clinton can cost you half a million bucks and he won’t even put on a skin-tight sparkly dress for you. Sometimes he talks to Canadians and Swedes, but if the payday is good enough he’ll jet off to Saudi Arabia, a country so oppressive it makes Turkmenistan look like a San Francisco nudist colony circa 1968. The rulers of assorted oppressive oil-rich regimes gain a lot of cachet by hosting Clinton. What prestige did Berdymukhamedov gain by having the fading singer of “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” mime on stage for him? Zero.
And then there’s Al Gore, who hates global warming so much that he sold his rubbish TV station to the emir of Qatar for $500 million, and I need not add that the champion greenhouse gas generating emir is not known for his progressive views either. Sure, Gore got a bit of stick for that, but not enough. And that’s not fair. Has J-Lo spent her career banging on about human rights in Central Asia only to turn against everything she had ever said as soon as the payout was awesome enough?
Al Gore, on the other hand, smeared himself with filthy lucre as quick as he could.
Let’s be reasonable here. J-Lo gets paid to entertain. Sometimes she entertains unpleasant people. But she’s got a toy boy – she has to keep him in bling, you understand, and at least she works hard for an hour or so on stage to get her money. Compare that with some of the most respected, allegedly enlightened statesmen of our age who will spout platitudes at just about any old thug if the bucks are big enough. I know who I think is more honest.