Grunge, gangsta rap, and electronica — like punk rock before them — make it unfashionable for musicians to admit to wanting a vast, varied audience. Popular music long ago fractured into a series of cults — cults each made up of millions, to be sure, but organized around the notion that music ought to be a private club, for which you have to know the right buzzwords, the right attitudes, the right acts to idolize for a year or so, before a new, approved set of them comes along.
In this context, anyone who still thinks his or her music should appeal to everyone — should cut across all genres and tastes — seems at once brave and ludicrous, two adjectives that apply very well to a pair of pop-music overachievers: Elton John, the subject of an entrancing 1996 documentary, Tantrums and Tiaras, premiering this week, and Garth Brooks, whose recent Garth Live From Central Park will be repeated by HBO in an unscrambled broadcast free to all cabled viewers on Sept. 13.
Like Elton, Garth Brooks is a shameless showboater who measures the love elicited from his audience in mega-million record sales. To this end, Brooks reinvented the concept of a country-music concert by turning it into a grandiose, sweat-pouring-out, smoke-‘n’-laser spectacle. Never has a country artist with so much talent seemed so desperate for adulation; it’s actually better to see Brooks on TV than on stage, because the cameras home in on his most revealing expression — an avid, wide-eyed stare with fixed grin, a look that says, ”I make pretty music, but I’m a little nuts, and you dig it, don’t you?”
Yes, indeedy. Whether bellowing through his country power ballads, thanking the folks for liking ”Garth” (he is fond of referring to himself in the third person), or matching egos with his Central Park special guest Billy Joel, Brooks is not a little creepy but always compulsively watchable. He exploits the corniness of country to dig deeper into the music than any country star has in a long time. He gets away with tunes about murder and debauchery because everything surrounding those subjects is so dag-blamed party-hearty.
Ultimately, there’s something about the foolhardy, overwrought desire of both Garth Brooks and Elton John to unite a universal pop audience that, once you dig beneath their individual pop-star glossiness, makes them seem a little desperate but also — strangely enough — downright heroic. B