Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and the Politics of Tourism

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On December 19, local radio personality Scott “Scoot” Paisant announced on his daily WWL radio show that a “very reliable source” had informed him that Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, which had broadcast from New Orleans since 2016, was not returning in 2023. The reason, the source told him, was because of the high crime levels: “[Dick Clark Productions] don’t want to invite people to come here, because the city’s dangerous.” Within 48 hours, Scoot’s “very reliable source” was proven incorrect and Scoot himself had to issue a public mea culpa. The issue wasn’t crime, it was the fact that tourism and City officials had finally come to realize that paying several million dollars for just a few minutes of airtime once a year was not providing a good return on investment.

Of course, no correction from Scoot could stop then Governor-elect Jeff Landry from using those misinformed comments to attack New Orleans. He promptly used his Twitter account to post that “This is the sad reality of New Orleans. No one feels safe,” and then went on to plug his previously announced special legislative session centered around crime. This was certainly not the first time Landry had spoken ill of New Orleans—much of his gubernatorial campaign centered around attacking New Orleans and other majority-Black Louisiana cities, using crime rates as an inflammatory issue in particular—nor was it the first time he used New Year’s Rockin’ Eve to attempt to discredit City leadership. It is also not the first time the event itself would create political friction.

Back in the fall of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, far right Christian nationalist musician, preacher, and COVID-denier Sean Feucht held an unpermitted concert and rally across from Jackson Square. Lauren Daigle, Louisiana native and rising Christian pop star now living in New Orleans—an old friend of Feucht’s—stopped by and sang what she claims to have been an impromptu duet with him. Daigle maintains that she, seeing the barricades and police presence, mistakenly thought the rally was City-sanctioned. But when footage of her performance was posted, many city residents, including Mayor Cantrell, were outraged that she participated in an event that violated announced COVID restrictions.

To complicate matters further, Daigle was also the 2020 celebrity ambassador for the Louisiana Department of Tourism. She was championed by Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, who pushed to have her perform as part of that year’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Having apparently become aware that Daigle may have been under consideration to perform as a part of the broadcast, Mayor Cantrell sent a letter to Dick Clark Productions, stating that “Ms. Daigle cannot and should not be rewarded with national media exposure and a public spotlight. She harmed our people, she risked the lives of our residents, and she strained our first responders in a way that is unconscionable… I ask that you immediately remove Ms. Daigle from the line-up for New Year’s Eve.”

The public and private pushback from the Mayor against Daigle’s participation sparked a response from both Nungesser and then-Attorney General Jeff Landry. Nungesser—who, as part of his duties heads the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, which helped develop the pitch and incentive package that brought the event to New Orleans—was adamant that Daigle be a featured performer. He first proposed to have the singer perform from a riverboat docked in Gretna, but when that proved not to be feasible, withdrew the state’s $500,000 sponsorship of the broadcast. (The City of New Orleans then used $500,000 from the then-new Tourism and Cultural Fund to fill the gap left by the state, a move which also sparked outrage). Landry weighed in with a public letter addressed to Daigle herself, asserting that her First Amendment rights to “protest and worship” were violated and that she was “entitled to protection under Louisiana law from tortious interference with [her] private contractual relationships.” He went on to offer his assistance in moving the event to “more hospitable regions in our State, like your home Parish of Lafayette” should she and Dick Clark Productions like to do so. The event stayed put and featured Big Freedia and PJ Morton instead of Daigle.

Since 2020, despite having brokered the initial deal, Nungesser’s office has declined to offer any further financial support for the event. In a recent interview with Newell Normand, Nungesser suggested that its decline in value lay squarely on the stewardship of the City of New Orleans, citing “Don Lemon drunk” and “the Mayor and Big Freedia dancing at Jackson Square” as failing to adequately promote Louisiana tourism, leading to a poor return on investment. However, in a moment of deep irony, he notes that he “would love to see it come back… If you take the politics out of it and do what’s right for tourism, it has value.”

While no entity involved in the financing and staging of the event comes off well, the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve fiasco is an excellent example of how statewide conservative politicians often use New Orleans tourism—and the large amounts of money associated with it—to try to influence political and cultural agendas and bolster support from their own voting base. Three years ago, Jeff Landry used the controversy surrounding the event in an attempt to fan the flames of his fight against COVID restrictions. This past December he used the cancellation of the same event (which he had already said he would assist to leave New Orleans) as a talking point to support his attacks on the city and promote his “law and order” agenda. Despite crediting his agency with helping launch the event, Nungesser withheld funding when his preferred performer became mired in controversy and was not invited to participate. Then, despite the reduced funding, he suggested that the ensuing changes to the production demonstrated that New Orleans was less competent at production and marketing, offering to potentially resume participating (and providing funding) if “experts”—i.e. Nungesser’s people—were brought back in. We’ve seen this playbook before, particularly when it comes to the French Quarter: Elected officials from outside New Orleans love to attack the culture, leadership, and management of the Quarter but are dead set on gaining control of the tourism dollars it generates, casting themselves as the savior the area needs. Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve may be finished in New Orleans, but expect fights like these to continue, particularly as now Governor Jeff Landry settles in.

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