|« Review/Photos: Deerhoof @ Prtizker Pavilion in Millennium Park 6/14/12||Friday Quick Links »|
Concert Fri Jun 15 2012
By Jason Prechtel
When a staffing agency called me last year and asked if I wanted to work the B96 Pepsi Summer Bash, I was intrigued. CBS Radio's Top 40 station, 96.3 FM, WBBM, had been a nearly ubiquitous presence while growing up in suburban Chicago. Without fail, the Summer Bash would be hyped up every year across the radio speakers of minivans, swimming pools, and shopping mall clothing stores as the biggest music event of the summer.
First held in 1992, and later sponsored by Pepsi some years later, the Summer Bash has always been a cross-section who's hot, who's established, and who's emerging in Top 40 mainstream pop radio. Bigger names like T-Pain, Chris Brown, Pitbull, and Lupe Fiasco were on the bill for the 2011 edition, along with acts with hit singles like Far East Movement, Tinie Tempah, Keri Hilson, Jay Sean, and the New Boyz, and tween heartthrobs Joe Jonas, Cody Simpson, and Big Time Rush.
Curious to see what the current crop of mainstream pop acts were like in a live setting, I said yes.
A week later, I found myself driving down to Bridgeview's Toyota Park on an overcast Saturday morning. Upon checking in at noon, I was given an event staff t-shirt and a pile of "swag bags" filled with suntan lotion and lip balm to give to passersby. After about four hours of work, my shift ended and one of my supervisors offered me a free ticket. Seizing the opportunity, I walked up to the stadium amid the throngs of high school cliques, couples, and parent-child groups, and found myself seated in the bleachers, far stage left, just in time for the second act, Far East Movement. As I sat back and watched the event unfold, I noticed some interesting patterns emerge.
Despite the live setting, significant chunks of the performances were pre-recorded. British singer Jay Sean and Pitbull barely sang over their own pre-recorded vocal tracks. Performers whose hit singles depended on a guest artist had two choices: either bring the guest on stage with them (which is what Far East Movement and London rapper Tinie Tempah did), or go ahead and play the track with pre-recorded backing vocals. Pitbull, for example, played the Jennifer Lopez single "On The Floor," a song in which he's only credited as a guest performer. Nickelodeon-assembled boy band Big Time Rush featured Snoop Dogg on their track, "Boyfriend." In a similarly odd pop juxtaposition, blonde Australian Justin Bieber clone Cody Simpson played a single, "iYiYi" featuring Flo Rida. While not necessarily a collaboration, Lupe Fiasco played his hit single, "The Show Goes On," which is based on the melody and chorus lyrics of Modest Mouse's "Float On." And in what must have made for some awkward backstage moments, T-Pain rapped over the beats of Far East Movement's "Like a G6" and his song with Pitbull, "Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor)," without inviting either one of them on stage or even acknowledging their presence at the Summer Bash, while later joining Chris Brown on stage for a track.
Several times, the performers on stage went as far as to play other artist's songs. New Boyz covered Cali Swag District's "Teach Me How To Dougie" — and both Cody Simpson and Chris Brown later performed the track's signature dance move during their own sets. T-Pain rapped his own rhymes over the instrumental of Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow." To top it all off, Chicagoland-based YouTube Star Keenan Cahill, famous for lip-syncing songs, came out to dance and perform to a medley of songs from artists including Katy Perry, LMFAO and 50 Cent.
The parallels between the acts kept coming. Keri Hilson and Cody Simpson's backup dancers may as well have had the same choreographer. Joe Jonas and Chris Brown both danced seductively with a lone female dancer on stage during a song in their respective sets. T-Pain and Big Time Rush both used AutoTune. Joe Jonas and Pitbull both used the line "shut this thing down" at seemingly dramatic points during songs.
Eventually, every experience started to blend together. Every stage set-up interval between performers involved the screen above the stage playing music videos and the same five commercials. Every performer was introduced by a rotating cast of B96 DJ's or guest hosts with the phrase, "Make some noise for ____!" Every performer who had a DJ on stage had technical difficulties. Every performer asked the audience how they were doing at some point during the first three songs of their set. Every performer commented on the cold, rainy weather, even after the rain let up. Nearly every performer at some point asked us to put our hands in the air and, on occasion, asked us to wave them side-to-side. And every single time, the audience happily obliged.
Even when there was no actual performer on stage, and only music videos being played on the screen above the stage, people got excited and sang along to singles by Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, to the point where I realized the crowd was enjoying jamming out to the pre-recorded singles of artists who weren't there more than most of the actual live performances.
But in the end it didn't matter. The audience was happy to eat up every hit single, regardless what aspect of the song was actually being performed live. After the show, I made my way up I-55 back to Chicago, and listened to a B96 DJ remix songs by artists I had just seen live.
The 2012 edition of the B96 Pepsi Summer Bash is coming up this weekend, and there have been some significant shifts in pop music since the last Bash. While the vast majority of the songs and performers at last year's Summer Bash were heavy on electronic dance pop, there were still distinct musical differences between artists like Cody Simpson or Keri Hilson.
In the year that's passed, singles put out by seemingly divergent artists such as Maroon 5, Nicki Minaj, and Flo Rida are all club-ready electronic dance tracks with pumping beats and synths. Even the rare non-dance music breakout track from this year, Goyte's "Somebody That I Used To Know," is on the B96 rotation with the more danceable DJ Mike D remix. Electronic music DJs like David Guetta, Afrojack, and Calvin Harris have gone beyond producing tracks for major artists to now having tracks on the radio as credited artists. Mainstream pop has reached the point where artists and their backing tracks are completely interchangeable with each other — just so long as the combination is catchy enough to keep a crowd dancing.
When I look at the line-up of the 2012 edition of the B96 Pepsi Summer Bash, I wonder what it has to offer the pop music fan in 2012. Scheduled performers Gym Class Heros, Karmin, Dev, Havana Brown and The Wanted have all already played Clear Channel's rival 103.5 KISS FM Fantabuloso music festival in May (itself sponsored by PepsiCo subsidiary Mountain Dew). And on the same day as this year's Summer Bash is the first day of Soldier's Field's Spring Awakening (co-sponsored by Red Bull). With co-headliners Afrojack (who has produced tracks for last year's Summer Bash headliners Chris Brown and Pitbull) and Skrillex, along with dozens of other DJ/producers, the event will most likely showcase what last year's B96 Pepsi Summer Bash only hinted towards: people like hearing songs in large groups, regardless of whether the performer is actually around to play it.
Does that mean that DJs have rendered the pop star irrelevant? Not necessarily. FM pop radio and the celebrity gossip market aren't going away anytime soon, and always need fresh talent to keep the system going. But in a YouTube VEVO-streamed, Spotify-ed, internet hyped, mass-torrented-by-the-terabyte era of music consumption, who's to say where exactly the future of live music events is heading? All I know is that at least one person in an arena tomorrow is going to ask thousands of people to make some noise. And a stadium-filled crowd will respond by screaming in unison. And at least one young, tight-knit group of friends will proceed to dance, laugh, and party the night away under an endless wave of synthesizer melodies and the neon glow of a soft-drink logo.
About the Author: Jason Prechtel is a Chicago-based writer and Gapers Block contributor. He has previously been a DJ and Music Director for WESN FM in Bloomington, IL and currently writes about politics, history, and globalization on his blog, Culture Bore.