I Heart Radio: Gaga, Sting, J. Lo, more do Vegas for Seacrest
Ryan Seacrest and Clear Channel Communications have some impressively deep Rolodexes: Over a star-studded five hours Saturday evening at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the hosts of Night 2 of the I Heart Radio music festival delivered a bill that included, in order of appearance (roughly): Steven Tyler, Jeff Beck, Sting, Randy Jackson, a few members of Sly Stone's Family Stone, Nicki Minaj, Karmin, Rascal Flatts, Jennifer Lopez, David Guetta, Usher, Kenny Chesney, Lady Gaga and Sting (again).
That's a lot of records sold, and dozens of massive radio hits and platinum discs. This creative musical energy was harnessed in Vegas for a specific purpose: to market I Heart Radio, the new mobile phone app launched by Clear Channel and Seacrest that promises listeners the freedom to choose the music they consume and to access Clear Channel's vast network of terrestrial stations via the Internet.
Like Friday's show, Saturday's sold-out performance at the 17,000-capacity Garden Arena was broadcast via the Web and to Clear Channel radio stations across the country, no doubt one selling point that drew such a massive lineup to Vegas. As a result, the event moved like clockwork: Each musician came out, played his or her hits, shilled for I Heart Radio, sweated, danced, sang, thanked his or her fans, and then left. Between quick set changes, videos on the massive screen showed clips of the performers talking about music, and creativity, radio and I Heart Radio. The display also showed commercials.
If you sense a certain cynicism, it was negated on a few memorable musical occasions. Tyler's opening salvo was "Sweet Emotion," which he sang with Beck on guitar and Sting on bass, a brain-teaser of a combination that, though rock solid, hopefully won't result in supergroup somewhere down the line.
Minaj, as always, was a joy to watch, a pitch-perfect, wildly charismatic rapper-singer-dancer-actor-marionette who tore through a handful of her best verses and tracks and said as much with her plasticized facial expressions and darting eyes as she did with her rhymes. "Super Bass," especially, was thrilling, a bounce-heavy banger that she and her rubbery backup dancers offered with joyful abandon.
Throughout the night, performers exclaimed how excited they were to be among such a varied lineup, and on the surface it was true: Minaj doesn't share much with Aerosmith, nor does she have much common ground with the middling, cookie-cutter country act Rascal Flatts or twangin' party boy Chesney. The latter superstar, who tossed out solid but harmless nuggets of country rock, certainly doesn't share too much common artistic ground with Lady Gaga, let alone a Frenchman like Guetta, who debuted a new song with R&B singer Usher.
What they do share are major label contracts, the power to deliver huge messages to big fanbases, access to the largest and most well-financed communication conduits available, and a willingness to explain on camera and onstage how awesome the I Heart Radio app and music festival will be.
The performance of the night? By far it was Lopez's fluid, expert set, which saw her rocking a fantastic Tina Turner-esque red mini-dress circa 1974, which she coupled with gold heels. Moving across the stage like Lena Horne in her prime, Lopez dipped back to her early years with a convincing version of "Jenny From the Block" and, of course, slammed home her 2011 comeback dancefloor hit "On the Floor." As Pitbull's image lorded on the video screen above, Lopez demanded that the world dance: "Brazil, Morocco, London to Ibiza, straight to L.A., New York, Vegas to Africa."
Lady Gaga also lobbied for dancing with one of her typically huge sets. For those who haven't seen her recently, Gaga's got this keyboard stand made out of motorcycle parts that consumes a big chunk of the stage; it's like an Ed "Big Daddy" Roth hot rod illustration come to life, all chrome and power and, when she and her 14 leather-clad, washboard-abbed male dancers weren't doing synchronized voguing, she straddled it, writhed upon it. At times, she even sat on it so she could play the keyboard. The songs she did? "Poker Face," "Alejandro," "The Edge of Glory," "Born This Way," "Bad Romance" and "Judas."
One annoying thing about Gaga's shows of late, though, is her between-song banter. She has the habit of uttering soliquoys to her little monsters with a melodramatically out-of-breath voice, as though she's just run a marathon, is on the verge of collapse but has to soldier on. Earlier in the night, Tyler was working just as hard, and he's twice -- three times? -- Gaga's age. You didn't hear him wheezing between songs; you heard him shrieking with glee.
On Friday night, the big surprise moment was Jay-Z and Alicia Keys performing "Empire State of Mind" as a duet. On Saturday, it was Sting appearing alongside Lady Gaga near the night's end. The pair did a solid version of "Stand by Me," and then moved on to the Police's "King of Pain." Sting and Gaga swapped verses -- he delivered a straight, unaffected rendition while she oversold her verses by seeming to simultaneously channel both Ray Charles and Mariah Carey. It was a bit much, honestly -- but never let it be said that Lady Gaga doesn't work hard for her money.
The festival's most touching, and real, moment came from Gaga near the end of her set, when she dedicated a song to Jamey Rodemeyer, a gay teenager who committed suicide last week after being teased and bullied about his sexuality. The singer's honest, heartfelt devotion to the cause of sexual and gender equality has made her a spokesperson for a generation, and when she stopped the party to offer an ode to the 14-year-old Rodemeyer, she stripped away, if only for a moment, any cynicism one may have had for the first I Heart Music festival's motives in celebrating the power of music and radio.
With one offering of clarity, Gaga reinforced the notion that the spirit of music can touch hearts and convey emotions way more powerfully than even the most state-of-the-art smart phone application.
-- Randall Roberts
Top photo: Nicki Minaj performs during the I Heart Radio music festival Saturday in Las Vegas. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press.
Middle photo: Jennifer Lopez performs during the music festival. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press.
Bottom photo: Lady Gaga and Sting. Credit: Christopher Polk / Getty Images.