Katy Perry pays homage to Pop Art in polka dot leggings. R’n’B sexpot Usher needs a fire extinguisher and Coldplay plays support to teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber.
Welcome to the weekend Summertime Ball staged by Capital FM. An audience of 80,000, with plenty of teenage girls, duly screams with larynx-endangering abandon at Wembley Stadium in London. Over the course of seven hours, 17 acts take to the stage, each playing between one and six songs. With time only for hits and no fillers, the show provides an insight into the current state of pop, warts and all.
Like some infectious disease, some is extremely catchy. Newcomer Rita Ora bounds around the stage all smiley bright red lipstick, blonde hair with dirty roots and 1950’s inspired garb.
And, as diseases go, some is unpleasant. Kelly Clarkson’s insipid music has none of the charisma of Avril Lavigne. Rapper Flo Rida has been peddling his thuggish take on euro-trance for a couple of years now. His show is as tired as it is uninspired.
Worse still is Cuban emigre Pitbull -- dressed in a black suit, like Scarface via Wal-Mart. He raps like a man in a toffee-eating competition and dances like a constipated penguin. Possibly the product of some dastardly CIA scheme, Pitbull’s performance is among the worst I’ve ever seen.
Coldplay’s mild English rock has sold more than 55 million records. The band, in the middle of an 84-date world tour, is first on at the most un-superstar hour of 4 p.m. The enjoyable run-through of hits including “Yellow” and “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” is played on fluorescent paint-spattered instruments.
“We’re called Coldplay,” quips singer Chris Martin, mimicking the classic patter of support bands everywhere. “We’re Justin Bieber’s dads.”
Before Bieber, U.S. star Usher scurries like a funky hamster of lurve. His dancing is immaculate, his songs perfectly balanced commercial choruses and crisp soul emoting. The consummate professional, he doesn’t miss a Michael Jackson- inspired move when someone rushes on to extinguish part of the stage set on fire by a malfunctioning pyrotechnic.
British popstrel Jessie J performs her hard-edged funk-pop looking like an extra from Frankie Goes to Hollywood in mini-studded leather shorts, matching jacket and a classic 1980’s “Boy” T-shirt. Theoretically excellent, the overbearing sense of her commercial ambition has made her music, not to mention her constant star antics in the U.K. media, peculiarly unpalatable.
Far more screams are garnered by Ed Sheeran. A podgy, scruffy young man playing average, wordy folk with a battered acoustic guitar, Sheeran is one of the more unlikely heroes to be thrown up by the U.K. charts.
The loudest screams are reserved for Bieber. The 18-year-old Canadian has already sold more than 15 million albums, had 2.7 billion YouTube views, earned $55 million and has been named by Forbes as the third most powerful celebrity globally.
Bieber wears a Union Flag shirt and a sleeveless denim jacket with another flag sewn on the back. His dancing is mechanical, his nasally voice a mild irritant and his songs driven with only the slightest crumb of inspiration.
In an effort to stave off terminal incredulity at the hysterical response such mediocrity generates, I scour his set for hints that something darker, Scott Walker-style, might yet blossom. Depressingly, none emerge.
Katy Perry saves the day with a knock-about performance on a set inspired by the art of Roy Lichtenstein. Perry understands that, more than being cool or aspirational, pop should be fun.
Primary-colored costumes and cartoon choreography add to the uncomplicated thrill of hits like “Firework” and “California Gurls.” Perry’s cheeky winks, ability to sneak in a Radiohead reference (“The One That Got Away”) and a strangely moving acoustic cover of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” suggest she has what it takes to become one of pop’s true greats.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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