Many listeners still can't help but disregard certain artists based solely on the fact that they are commercially successful. This assumes that popularity and talent are mutually exclusive -- pop music is the great enemy to art. To those who have doubts concerning the joy these artists can deliver, you need only attend one of the concerts. To see a colossal radio presence live is an experience no music fan should go without. Most recently, Monday's Rihanna show afforded me this opportunity.
These events are "concerts" in the same way atomic bombs are bombs. Multi-million dollar spectacles of towering panoramic glass, ribboning neons and spitting fire, performed in venues the size of coliseums. It's entertainment as reality-shaking lobotomy, 3-D music videos that swallow you whole. On paper, it seems normal enough. The concert starts, you hear music, the concert ends. But in between lies a fully immersive dream state where people are engulfed by the images of the pop stars they worship.
To wit: Rihanna's on stage now. The women are sirens. The place is a zoo. The faces around me become bedazzled pinwheels of flickering light -- euphoric expressions cut from shock and awe. For a moment I think, "But she's just a person." I'm dead wrong. Not tonight. Tonight she's a robot. Tonight she's a walking, breathing advertisement for a lifestyle that none of us will ever touch. She's the embodiment of desire, on both sides of the gender fence. Every person here has unfulfilled fantasies that she has conquered. In one way or another, she's living out our dreams. Perhaps, that's one of the main sources of blind loathing people feel towards these figures: They are successful in a way that we are not.
I see that to dismiss the intense emotional responses I see around me outright would be a foolish, stubborn mistake. Who am I to pretend that nothing of musical value is going on here, when, so clearly, seas of people are being hurdled through waves of sound-born ecstasy? And so I let go. I started to have fun, and it was mesmerizing.
This was the moment that did me in: Rihanna was dancing center stage, with a rainbow of glittery jump cuts, pristine choreography and actual pillars of fire framing her every graceful step. There was a procession of building-sized screens oscillating behind her, each a smirking Rihanna a hundred feet tall. The HD monitor above the audience displayed a close-up glimpse of the on-stage action; it showed the real-life dancing Rihanna with the same dozen giant Rihannas looming behind her. The effect was chilling, like seeing Helen of Troy ascend into heaven. On stages like this, humans become flash-bangs, musicians monoliths. The production value of it all made Broadway look like a straw man. For better or worse, this was a much-needed reminder of just how powerful a musician can be.
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I came as a relative cynic, hesitant to buy into the world of an artist I thought was spent (though Loud and Rated R had their brilliance). I left with a head full of memories and the wish that everyone could own an experience like that. Regardless of where your allegiances lie -- whether you're into independent music, or prefer buying CDs at Target to live music -- you owe it to yourself to attend a concert like this. Much in the way one can appreciate the majesty of the Grand Canyon without an interest in geology, you don't even need to give a damn about these artists to have the time of your life. Their presence, and the circus in tow, is just that good. Sure, I left emptied and tired. And sure, I realize that 75 percent of what happened was Hollywood surfaces and marketing strategy, but I haven't the slightest hint of regret. It was a profound slice of dazzling entertainment that I'll never forget.
Let's not kid ourselves: That's why we go to concerts, to be entertained. It's certainly not just about the music. After all, apart from some rare exceptions, recorded music is always a better reflection of the artist's acumen -- it's everything they do best streamlined directly to your ear. Concerts are about sharing in an experience and about giving in to the surreality we associate with musicians. As a music fan with this in mind, I advise you, don't forgo a big-venue concert out of some unfound snobbery. Because, frankly, it doesn't get much better than this.