Crimes of taste shouldn't be compared to acts of inhumanity. But still, is it any surprise that Moammar Gadhafi, like so many megalomaniacs before him, offends against art as well as morality?
Absolute power is a good guarantee of kitschiness, whether you're Elvis at Graceland or Saddam Hussein in a palatial boudoir decorated with bosomy sword-and-sorcery heroines. As a much-feared dictator, you don't need to know art, you just need to know what you like, and what Colonel Gadhafi likes best - after himself, at least - seems to be the overly sweet sounds of Lionel Richie. In 2006, the Jheri-curled father of Nicole, easy-listening crooner of Hello and All Night Long and faded Reagan-era icon flew to Libya by special request of the country's supreme leader.
Two decades before, the United States had conducted an air strike against Libya in an attempt to kill Col. Gadhafi and end his support of international terrorism. Instead, his adopted daughter was killed in the attack. When the Libyan leader decided to commemorate the anniversary of her death - and reach out to his former enemies in an autocratic act of musical reconciliation - the smooth-voiced Mr. Richie was the natural choice as the man to bring world peace and global gravitas through soulful songs. Okay, it didn't quite work out that way. Col. Gadhafi's narcissistic fantasies and overly mellow taste in vocal music might have conspired to delude him. But he did manage to snag Mr. Richie's autograph in a private audience at the palace, and used the concert - which began at the very moment of his daughter's death 20 years before - to provide useful fatherly guidance for his sons on running a harmonious dictatorial dynasty.
Just as Mr. Richie bonded with the Libyan tyrant and brought out a softer, less bloodthirsty side, so singers like Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Usher have been hired to entertain the Gadhafi boys during recent New Year's celebrations at the family compound on St. Bart's. We're not international pariahs, the lads seem to be saying, we're the kind of predictably mainstream celebrity hounds you'd find in any great lowbrow democracy.
What the upheaval across North Africa will do to the dictatorial entertainment budget is anyone's guess - Justin Bieber's mentor may have to look farther afield for his next tainted oil-money paycheque. But as long as there are murderous presidents-for-life looking for some bland musical distraction, there will be opportunities for get-rich songsters to soothe those savage beasts.
John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
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