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Carman Live
Key Arena, Seattle
March 8, 2001

There isn't a time I can ever recall entering the Key Arena (or even when, as it was formerly known, the Seattle Center Coliseum) without first coughing up at least ten dollars, whether it was for a concert, the circus, or a basketball or hockey game. However, on this night I strolled right on in, along with what I estimated to be about twelve thousand others, for a free concert. Not one of my friends cared to join me, which was fine -- nobody I know has the slightest interest in seeing a performance (even a free one) by a middle-aged Christian pop singer named Carman.

In recent years, Carman has emerged as one of the biggest stars on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the Orange County, California-based Christian fundamentalist television ministry. I've watched TBN since my mid-'80s high school years, during televangelism's scandalous Jim-and-Tammy era. I became hooked because I didn't want to miss seeing TBN's founders, Paul and Jan Crouch, trip themselves up like the Bakkers and eventually go down in flames. Yet, fifteen years later, TBN is still going strong, reputation mostly intact, and as for me, well, old habits die hard. I still watch TBN religiously -- not in the literal sense, but because I find myself endlessly intrigued by TBN's glitzy, showbiz approach to Christianity.

The epitome of which is Carman. His first regular gig on TBN was in the early '90s as host of a teen-oriented variety show in which he interviewed guests and sang religious pop ditties. This led to a string of live concert performances and then music videos, still targeting the teen audience. (In one of TBN's promotional spots, when two junior-high age girls catch a glimpse of Carman on TV, one of them exclaims, "he's such a hottie!") He wrote and recorded several albums with such titles as Addicted to Jesus and RIOT (Righteous Invasion of Truth), whose songs are derived from a broad spectrum of popular mainstream music, with slick, TBN-friendly videos to match: "Slam" (rap), "Do I Do" (country), "Surf Mission" (surf guitar), "Prayer Anthem" (an Irish Riverdance-type number), along with techno, big band, reggae... In short, Carman jumps on whichever musical trend is in vogue, and about a year its mainstream peak, he'll have a new single to shamelessly capitalize on the genre. (Could misogynistic, gay-bashing rap-metal be next?)

Thumbing through the program while waiting for the show to get underway, I boned up on Carman trivia: Carmen Dominic Licciardello was born into an Italian-American family on January 19, 1956 in Trenton, New Jersey, where he also grew up. He began at acting at age six and soon learned to play guitar and drums, often accompanying his mother's all-female band. Later on, he worked a job in which he reupholstered benches in Denny's restaurants. Meanwhile, inspired at a concert by Christian singer Andrae Crouch, he became born again at age 20 and started recording his own devotional music, selling tapes out of the trunk of his car. Then, after dropping his middle and last names and altering the remainder ("I changed the 'e' to an 'a' so that people would know I was a man"), Carman signed with CBS Records. His first LP, "Some O Dat," was released in 1982, and he's since put out string of steady-selling albums.

Eight million records later, Carman decided to branch out into the movies. With the backing of TBN Films, he co-wrote and starred in Carman: The Champion, in which he plays Orlando Leone, Jr., a retired boxer who preaches at his inner-city youth mission. The story finds him forced to get back into the ring for a big fight in order to raise enough money to save his mission from financial ruin. Along the way to the predictable finale, he battles stereotypical "gangsta" drug dealers and becomes a father figure to one at-risk youth, though it seems that he's more drawn to the boy's attractive single mother.

Despite TBN's relentless promotion of Champion in the weeks leading up to its release, including behind-the-scenes/ making-of features, numerous interviews and the trailer running ad nauseum, the film bombed at the box office. On opening day, just a week before the Key Arena show, I attended a Friday afternoon matinee in downtown Seattle. There were only two other people in the audience, one of whom walked out after the first ten minutes. I should've joined him: the movie had about all the clichéd drama, one-fisted action and ham acting as any episode of Walker: Texas Ranger.

TBN's initial support of the picture began last fall when the network staged an unprecedented campaign in an attempt to push the soundtrack's lead single, the boy-band tinged "Faith Enough," to number one on the Billboard charts. The track failed to chart at all, though the soundtrack album, a double CD, peaked at a respectable number 53. Still, TBN's media blitz continued, which also included the movie's tie-in novelization, touted as Carman's first stab at fiction. The music, the movie, the tour, the book... Carman!

So there I was: Carman-mania had swept me up and deposited me in a random seat at the Key Arena. The house lights dimmed, the crowd screamed, and the show began. And there he was: Carman in the flesh, live on stage, takin' it to the streets (or rather, to a mid-sized arena, one of many during his 70-city "Heart of a Champion" American concert tour). Carman's deeply tanned, leathery face, impossibly white teeth, impeccably groomed hair, rugged sideburns and sharp threads flashed across two jumbo video screens, above a symmetrical stage with twin staircases joined by a long catwalk. He was backed by a full band, including a three-man horn section, three female backup singers and eight dancers (who went through multiple costume changes over the course of the evening), the whole complement of which would put MC Hammer to shame.

Peppered into his between-song banter were silly personal anecdotes, corny jokes, and lots and lots of sermonizing. His repertoire was a mix of old songs ("Great God," "I Love Jesus") and new ("The Champion," "Jesus Period"), but instead of actually performing "Faith Enough," Carman took a breather while the song's video was shown instead. Though the video had aired constantly on TBN for months, the audience still cheered wildly. An even bigger crowd-pleaser was a medley in which he pondered what it would be like if more popular mainstream acts over the years went into the ministry: Elvis's "Blue Suede Shoes" became "Blue Suede Bible," Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" became "Livin' for Jesus Only," and hits by the Temptations, Bee Gees, and Michael Jackson were similarly butchered.

The crowd ate it up, laughing, clapping, singing along, and waving their hands. People of all ages and backgrounds had come together, united by their love of Carman: busloads of families, teens (an odd number of which sported facial piercings and were clad in black leather pants), and lots of kids, all cheering at every scripted mention of God and Jesus and the like. Many of them wore T-shirts, caps, wristbands and other items bearing such slogans as "Got Jesus?", "WWJD" (standing for "What Would Jesus Do?", what any good Christian should ask themselves when faced with a difficult situation), and my personal favorite, "Satan Sucks!" Down in the front rows was a group of fans in wheelchairs, one of whom was presumably overcome by the show and writhed around on the floor. Nearby was a section for deaf audience members, where a woman translated Carman's lyrics into sign language while doing a sort of interpretive dance.

Midway through the set, Carman made an "altar call" (apparently the stage being the altar), inviting anyone up to the front "who had never been saved before." I saw this as an opportunity to see the show up close without being hassled by ushers to remain in my seat. A couple hundred others marched up to the front along with me, and after a song or two, they were all escorted away into an arena concourse. I stayed behind, taking a seat on a small platform, upon which stood the cameraman capturing the action for the video screens.

(Here's more Carman, up close and personal: He has never been married, nor does he have any kids -- presumably he's a 45-year-old virgin. He lists among his hobbies making models, martial arts, and doodling. His favorite vacation destination is Hawaii, his favorite food is pizza, and his most embarrassing moment: "One time on tour, I accidentally brushed my teeth with Ben Gay!")

A couple songs later came Carman's lengthy appeal for "love offerings" (read: donations). He affected a sort of overly sincere, choked-up, frog-in-the-throat plea, explaining that the staging of each performance cost his ministry $125,000. I pondered the scene as orange-vested volunteers took up a massive collection of cash and checks by passing plastic buckets up and down the rows of seats: video screens, pyrotechnics, a high-tech light show and Carman's entourage, and everyone in the audience received a free, glossy, full-color 20-page program (which included the factiod that Carman and company will go through 620 cans of hairspray while on this tour). I've always heard that the meek were supposed to inherit the earth, but merchandise sales were brisk, with stands in the concourses hawking CDs, T-shirts, posters and so forth. I couldn't understand why any performer with such a rabid following would need to practically beg for cash, but Carman offered this justification: "This generation is a sight-and-sound generation... You gotta go through the head into the heart!"

A few more songs led up to the worst of all rock 'n' roll clichés, the false ending ("Thank you! Good night!"), followed up by an encore. In this case, it happened to be "Who's in the House?" (an obvious swipe of "Who Let the Dogs Out?"); the answer to which was, of course, Jesus. The show was over, the house lights came up, and everybody headed home.

Walking over to the Five Point for a post-show drink, I wasn't sure what to make of it all, and am still not. Sure, there's no accounting for taste, but his music is painfully lame and his heavy-handed proselytizing is dumbed way down, making the whole presentation hard to swallow. Still, he's probably more successful in his niche as a Christian entertainer than if he sought mainstream, secular success. In any case, Carman must be commended for staying true to his uncompromising stance, as misguided as it may be. And, judging by his large, responsive following, it's working.

It'd be too easy to accuse him of being a huckster, but I still couldn't help but feel like he's nothing more than a charismatic egomaniac, peddling snake oil through his travelling salvation show. But folks can judge for themselves: the "Heart of a Champion" tour winds up with a pay-per-view special on Easter, coming up this Sunday. For those without a cable hookup (or who are simply unwilling to shell out $19.95), Carman can be seen frequently on TBN, broadcast on channel 20 in the Seattle area.

Be sure to tune in -- isn't that what Jesus would do?

Written in March 2001.

UPDATE. In May 2011, I recevied an email from a reader named Nicolas J. Nunez, who wrote: "'Who's in the House' was track 1 on Carman's 1993 release The Standard. 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' was written in 1998 by Anslem Douglas and released by Baha Men (which is probably the version you know) in 2000. So, unfortunately, we can't hold a case on Carman ripping the song."

Could it be, then, that "Who Let the Dogs Out?" is a ripoff of "Who's in the House"?

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© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich