I learned a valuable lesson about pop music during Justin Bieber's set this weekend at the 17th annual 102.7 KIIS-FM Wango Tango festival.
Pop. It's what you do to a troublesome blister, a boil, an unsightly whitehead pimple. It's also short for "popular music." Wango Tango is a festival of popular music put on by the radio conglomerate iHeartRadio (formerly Clear Channel). This year it featured Justin Bieber and Kanye West, among others. It took place at the StubHub center in Carson.
Like most journalists in attendance, I began my night on the red carpet. In Wango Tango’s case, the carpet was pink. I’m not sure why. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of working one, the red carpet is basically the landing strip for a fleet of non-statements and manufactured smiles. This is where you get to find out famous people's favorite colors and other inane horseshit.
I was placed at the beginning of the “Print and Online" section of the carpet, which is an optional stop for the performers. They have to talk to the sponsor and a few of the larger media outlets. Us? Nah. Print is dead.
The highlight of the red carpet, for us non-players, was Internet dog sensation “Jiff.” Jiff looks like a rat they covered in fake fur and electrocuted. Jiff is likely worth millions of dollars. Major media outlets on the red carpet asked Jiff questions. (Actually, they directed their questions at Boo, another web-famous furball of a dog indistinguishable from Boo, which Jiff's handler made no effort to correct.) Jiff stuck his tongue out like he got the joke.
As the carpet rolled on, the show had already begun. I entered the stadium in time to see some vocal R&B group I’ve never heard sing “I Wanna Do Shots with Somebody” to the tune of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” They might as well have gone to Houston’s grave, cracked open her casket and poured shots of their own filth into it.
I remembered the group that followed from the red carpet. They looked just like the last group, but with different outfits. They sang. They danced. All of the young women around me knew all of the lyrics and the dance moves. Their 15-minute set gave me enough time to calculate how much alcohol I could reasonably drink and still be able to drive home in a few hours.
In between sets, they ran advertisements. Ads for sponsors. Ads for themselves. They even ran an ad for Justin Bieber. Every time the ad said his name, the crowd unleashed a sound like a gladiatorial audience begging for human blood.
At a certain point between acts, people started freaking out about someone famous getting seated in the front section. I asked the tween behind me, “Why is everyone freaking out?” She replied, “It’s Matthew Espinosa.” “Who the fuck is that?” I asked, unable to censor myself. “He’s a famous YouTuber.” That still didn’t answer my question.
Sometime after Ne-Yo and before Sia, my snarkometer exploded. Even though Sia was dressed like a Dragon Warrior villain, with a huge see-through hat covering her entire head, I had no feelings anymore. I’m sure David Guetta pushed some buttons on his DJ thing. I’m sure Nick Jonas performed. But I was gone. I had retreated into a deep, safe place inside myself.
I came to in the press section just before Justin Bieber’s performance. I was a few feet away from Meghan Trainor — who earlier had disappointed the red carpet press corps by explaining that she was a "pool person" in response to the trenchant question, "What's in your beach bag?"
Biebs started to perform. The audience again shrieked on a register only audible to canines. As I watched Bieber dancing — moves that were a cross between “Complicated Bowel Movement” and “Trying to Work Out a Long Division Problem on Paper” — it dawned on me. Holy shit. I got it. I finally got it.
This entire thing is too big to fail and has nothing to do with music.
I could sit here and continue to tell you that what I witnessed was a stadium full of brainless chickens watching the mysterious, preening movements of the ur-Rooster. I could tell you that he popped like a festering pimple that was long overdue for a squeeze. But I’d be lying.
Pop music is bigger than that. It has become the fabric of our democracy and we're all complicit in it. Every piece of minutiae — from the tickets, to the production, to the knobs that the producers twist, to the ribs on sale at concessions, to the women guarding the parking lot in their reflective belts — all of those people are employed because of a smug, weasel-faced, epithet-spouting Canadian and his cohorts. All of them. They represent billions of dollars. And there's nothing we can do about it.
Tell your co-workers at the Kuerig about Kanye's new jam. Make a Bieber joke. Razz him on the AM news. No. One. Gives. A. Shit.
Today's pop stars are teflon. They don't read. They don't care. But hating them is what keeps us from hating each other too much.
It's not entirely a distraction and it's not entirely a mess. It’s just what we, as Americans, now depend on, instead of the auto and steel industries. And hating on it will do nothing to stop it.
So, when Kanye performed after Bieber, I was completely at peace. He was as energetic as he was ridiculous and the crowd was as energetic as it was ridiculous. And none of it had to do with music.
When future civilizations find the ruins of ours, they won't find Pehrspace noise bands or dour indie ballads, or even Lydia Lunch or Alice Bag. They'll find Yeezy and Biebs and they’ll want to know why we were “All About that Bass.” They probably won't find L.A. Weekly, either, but in case they do, allow me to explain it to them: All of it drove human economy after industry failed. It fed children, paid taxes. Some of us refused to participate, and that was fine — we weren't wrong. But, for better or worse, it was us.
And y’know what? After Yeezy closed out his 30 minute set with “All Day” and “Niggas in Paris,” I got my photo with Jiff. I'm not proud of it, but I did it. Because everyone knows Jiff. (Except those who confuse him with Boo.) Jiff puts America to work.
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Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jiff as his "world's cutest dog" arch-rival, Boo. We would say we regret the error, but we'd be lying.
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