The Backstreet Boys
One moment in particular crystallized the spirit of KIIS-FM’s Wango Tango 2005. As Kelly Clarkson — barefooted and wearing a faded Rolling Stones tour shirt — strutted back and forth across the stage ramp, a young man a few rows up from me in a handmade “I Love Kelly Clarkson” t-shirt, stood and sang every line of her single, “Breakaway”, back at the singer. You wouldn’t see such gushing connections at Warped or Ozz Fest, oh no. But during this unique “American Idol”-like artist/fan love fest, it was okay – nay, even encouraged – to publicly pour out your emotions. This American Idol comparison is more than metaphorical, by the way, since Ryan Seacrest — that hit TV show’s omnipresent and obnoxious host — is also the morning radioman for Wango Tango sponsor, KIIS-FM. So he and his fellow jocks spent much of the day hyping their station in between acts. Because no artist received more than about forty-five minutes of stage time, there wasn’t a true headliner. But naturally, the bigger names were saved for last. Rapper Ludacris was the true closer, because the last act — the all-girl Pussycat Dolls – was more like music-to-locate-your-car-by than anything else. Ludacris came out dressed in his familiar red jogger outfit, and his profanity-laced set stood out from the pack. You see, this was an audience primarily composed of multiple mother and teen daughter duos, and the other artists respected this youthful-leaning demographic by keeping their language clean. Gwen Stefani made an immediate visual impression when she came out accompanied by a funky, dancing marching band to sing her hit “Hollaback”. “I’d be nothing without Anaheim”, she confessed at one point. And she was correct in that statement, since this central OC city is her real life hometown. Stefani’s set lagged a bit when she slowed things down for “Serious”, but she closed with a bang on the funky “What You Waiting For?” Later on, Will Smith came out sporting a t-shirt that read: “I Am Hip Hop”. I don’t think he was being ironic. This man may have started out doing rap, but he quickly moved onto the bigger (and glitzier) things of television and film. His music might still make the pop charts, but an “I Am Gone Hollywood” shirt would have made for more factually accurate apparel. The skateboarding and trick bike demonstration, as well as the short-shorted roller-skaters that joined him briefly offered undeniable proof that Smith is far more of an image-conscious artist than a musical one nowadays. Speaking of actors that fancy themselves singers, Smith followed Our Favorite Backside, Jennifer Lopez. (Her telling t-shirt said “Fuck It,” by the way). Apparently, she wants everyone within earshot (eyeshot?) to know that she just doesn’t care what anyone thinks or says about her. Fat Joe joined J-Lo to perform “Hold You Down”. This performance, one supposes, was meant to show off her street credibility. We’re not convinced, though. For the most part, she danced like an original fly girl, and sang in that wispy voice of hers. The Backstreet Boys may have earned a bigger reputation for being elementary school girl pinups than for music, but this ‘”once the second most popular boy band on the planet” hardly disappointed during its comeback gig. These guys mixed in new songs, such as the single “Incomplete”, with old hits, exemplified by “I Want It That Way”. Rather than wearing matching outfits, each member dressed like they were spending a Saturday afternoon relaxing at the park. And in the end, these boys-to-men came off like their clothes, laid back and easygoing. Whereas the Backstreet Boys brought back fond, young love memories for many in this audience, Frankie J was clearly the man that made them swoon with barely-bridled teenage lust. Accompanied on the arena’s many big screens by a few of his music videos, Mr. J oozed sexuality during numbers like the appropriately titled “Obsession”. Baby Bash joined him on stage for a couple of tunes, as well. A little while after the set, he made the mistake of trying to watch the rest of the show from the audience. But when he was swarmed, like bees on honey, he mounted a hasty retreat. Ryan Cabrera’s early afternoon youthful innocence, however, contrasted markedly with Frankie J’s bedroom-centric moves and sounds. Strumming on an acoustic guitar, songs like “True” had all the romantic sweetness of a budding Sting-in-waiting. For now, though, he’s still a one-man boy band. That young man-fan referred to earlier — you know, the guy so thrilled by Clarkson — was no doubt over the top. Nevertheless, Clarkson clearly has the admirable chops to be a star. This stadium, which was jam-packed from the field level to the very top of the outer rim, presented a large challenge for any singer, veteran or newcomer. But Clarkson bravely lived up to the challenge. Even when her guitarist had monitor troubles, she seamlessly switched to piano accompaniment and kept charging through her first single, “Miss Independent”, never missing a beat. It is with good reason that she cleaned up on “American Idol” — this girl’s obviously got the goods. If you were looking for artistic substance at Wango Tango, then, my friend, you were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The Blackeyed Peas, however, offered an exception. When these four rappers/singers got to “Where Is The Love?” in their set — a song that is a biting work that wonders aloud about the continual presence of racism and other social ills in our society — it was like a welcome musical sermon on the topic of social justice. Amen! It easily answered the (probably unasked) question, “Where Is the Substance?” This bill was top heavy with solo, female artists. In addition to Stefani, Lindsey Lohan, who is newly blonde, stayed for only two rocking songs. She mentioned between songs that this was a rare live performance for her, but the self-confidence she displayed helped her to come off like an old pro. The R&B Ciara, who is some kind of queen of crunk (crunk is a genre I’m not fully conversant in quite yet), matched the heat of the early afternoon with her equally hot set. She didn’t let the blazing sun keep her from getting physical with her material, as she led the crowd through the club hits of “1, 2 Step” and “Goodies”. Natalie, who opened this show, presented a selection of generic dance music, which relied upon predictable song names like “Goin’ Crazy”. Her bio states that she started out as a cheerleader for a professional sports team, and a TV timeout of her music would have been more than enough. Like Lindsey Lohan, just a few acts prior, pop-punkers Simple Plan kept their performance short and sweet. Not only that, but they played both “Shut Up” and “Welcome to My World” as unplugged acoustic tunes. And rather than setting up on the big stage, the group sat upon stools at an upper stage located at the end of the ramp. It was about as close and intimate as one could get in such a large setting. This Wango Tango event followed shortly after my visit to the much meatier Coachella Valley Music Festival, making this pair of shows one big adventure in polar opposites. Believe me, Wango Tango will never be confused with anything meaty. Instead, this radio station sponsored show was far closer to a kind of vegetarian’s delight. But after lowering my expectations to nearly microscopic pea levels, it actually felt pretty good to set aside the red meat for a day.