Earlier this week Justin Timberlake took his immaculately conceived three-hour extravaganza to American Airlines Center. It was the perfect pop show, utterly devoid of commentary -- just the larger-than-live presence of a star and his silky-smooth musical meal. Lest we sound disparaging here, it should be said: You can ask for absolutely nothing more from a pop star than that. Maybe we would have disagreed with his opinions, had he voiced them, or become bored in the lapse between songs. But JT is the consummate entertainer. He knows what people want and when they want it. His dance moves were greeted at least as warmly as his hits and he delivered plenty of both. The time breezed by, to the point that my concert-going companion looked in disbelief at her watch for the first time exactly two hours and forty-five minutes into the show.
It was, in that sense, the perfect pop arena show. And it made us think about what one can expect at such affairs. It is this:
5. Floating over the crowd Justin Timberlake minsters from a hydraulic, lateral chunk of stage that extends the horizontal length of the arena. This allows him to offer his hand, palm up, to adoring masses. Katy Perry accomplishes a similar effect with a cloud suspended by cables from the roof. Etc., etc., etc.
4. The loudest thing you have ever heard Forget metal bands and jet engines and warfare. Pop tours offer a truly insane decibel of loudness. Songs are rearranged from 40 tracks on record to 200 tracks live, with a dozen coming from the mics and instruments onstage and the rest coming from a backing record through the PA. Don't act surprised. Phil Spector recognized the value of the constant melodic blast long before such things were technologically simple, and now, for every four singers you see on stage, you can be assured that there are plenty more coming through the massive speakers, practiced, predictable and definitely in tune. Justin Timberlake actively stopped playing his acoustic guitar during one ostensible "unplugged" breakdown to absolutely no effect. No one even cares where these sounds are coming from.
3. Choreographed plot line If you're lucky, it's like JT and it's nothing more than a mirror of the lyrics: "Turn up" yields six back-up dancers cranking an imaginary nob clockwise. If you're less lucky, it's the Lady Gaga tour with heaven and hell and dollhouses and if you're the least lucky it's Katy Perry with an actual factual porny fairy tale.
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2. Inappropriate dress It is dark and the stage is tall. That does not stop thousands of fans from dressing expressly with the aim of impressing the star onstage. A fine goal, I guess, except that you're in an arena with many stairs and heels are 80% disaster, as my JT plus ones observed.
1. Canned regional acknowledgements "How we doin', Dallas?" is assuredly the tamest of the bunch. I would not be surprised to learn that a flunkie goes into the pop star's dressing room pre-show and offers spontaneous location quizzes to prevent some chart-topper from addressing a Phoenix crowd as San Diego. Honestly, that part is fine. It's the rest that's somewhat worrying, the particulars, the lies. "I always tell people INSERT CITY is the craziest place in the country. Ain't INSERT CITY crazy??" Or the lyric change, from whatever geographical noun to a more pertinent geographical noun, which is sure to earn a spike in screaming. But what emptiness, Justin! I would love to see the first four minutes when someone like that finishes a show and sits down, alone in front of a mirror, before going to deal with emails or hang out with groupies. I bet those two things become more or less indistinguishable, and what could possibly be more depressing than that?