With Miranda Lambert
AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Saturday, June 4, 2016
Making an emotional connection is what music is about. But it’s still embarrassing to get caught up in the moment and feel much of anything for an artist when you’re just one in a crowd of 50,000 people.
But there I was, watching Miranda Lambert take the stage at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday night. She’s acclaimed, popular, rich and talented. She’s also vulnerable, emotional and scarred by a year of public divorce, with the added insult of watching her ex, Blake Shelton, run around making music and TV shows with new amorata Gwen Stefani.
Lambert came on stage as a hometown hero, a Texas girl from Lindale who made it huge by playing good country music. And why not claim her? As she pointed out, she gigged in Dallas when she was a teenager. Several times during the night Lambert gripped a hand to her heart, thanking the crowd as they cheered. She considered it a homecoming, she said, and pointed out actual family members who were in box seats. Not coincidentally, she sang every song that contained a reference to Dallas.
Lambert did an admirable job of not laying the drama on too thick or playing the victim. She mentioned the divorce once, during one of those moments she was thanking her fans for being there for her. The arena responded with shrieking cheers. So there was some catharsis going on, but she wasn’t egging it on.
And her musical ability is solid, backed by a band that was blisteringly good. It took a song or two for her to warm to the venue, but the band was seamless from the jump. As she loosened up, any awkwardness faded. She was saucy during a cover of ZZ Tops’ “Tush,” syrupy sentimental during “The House That Built Me” and appropriately angry during the first-degree-murder, revenge fantasy “Gunpowder and Lead.”
But I couldn’t let the tabloid nonsense go. I was impressed by Lambert’s strong showmanship and resilience. Who’d want to get on stage with everyone thinking the same thing — what does Stefani have that she doesn’t? The temptation to evaluate the two is impossible to resist.
And so I was rooting for her, almost nervous for her to do well, to endure, to keep being the strong artist. What’s amusing is that Lambert is country music’s antidote to this kind of paternalistic impulse. After an intro featuring icons of country music and iconic images of women with firearms, it was clear she didn’t need the comfort, approval and protection of some random man in the audience. But I couldn’t help it: as the show went on, the feeling only strengthened.
I’d like to think this was a sincere emotional connection. I’d like to think she and I shared a moment, and that she felt some collective concern from the crowd. But then Kenny Chesney came on.
Chesney is high energy, and he talks like an inspirational life coach high on cocaine. He sells his own premium-octane enthusiasm and the entire stadium bought it. I did, too. Chesney can be so breathlessly excited about performing that he sometimes forgets to finish his lyrics. And no one in the audience cares, because they’re excited too. Plus, they know the words and are singing them. His performance and the stadium's reaction won me over.
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Then it dawned on me: Entertainers manipulate crowds, and the good ones can win ‘em over. Lambert and Chesney are not good performers, they are excellent performers.
I was responding to a great show, not an actual domestic situation upon which I have any awareness, familiarity or perspective. That’s the lie at the heart of the tabloid world — that we know these celebrities at all, behind closed doors, and that we can claim dominion over their actual lives. And at a show, when the artists are on display and doing everything to win your attention, those tabloid dreams feel more real.
But they’re not.
Deep down I feel that the same crowd cheering Lambert could watch Blake Shelton and be just as supportive, thinking that’s a good ole boy who’d be fun at a barbecue. We’re a venal, predictable species. And we’ve created a mass media that can feed us the same way McDonald’s can: endless meals, fleeting satisfaction and with nothing genuine ever really consumed.