When last we spoke, I was in the motel room with Henry and Scott, writing a journal between bouts of confusion regarding my press credentials. A few sips of whiskey and a Red Bull energy shot (did I mention that I don’t even like Red Bull?) later and we were out under the Vegas sun, trying to explain to Henry—with the help of Wikipedia—that the black and red bandannas hanging out of his back pockets said more about him than he was likely prepared to say himself.
After we all had a good laugh about fisting and "giving," we arrived at the site of the Red Bull Soundclash. The idea here, in a nutshell, is that two bands take two stages, and they challenge one another to a musical duel of sorts. They play cover songs, change up their styles, finish each others tunes and generally mix shit up, maintaining a running musical conversation and blowing minds in the process.
The stage for all of this was an abandoned lot across from the Luxor Hotel. Vegas is funny that way—on one side of the street there’s a gigantic, shimmering hotel and a full-sized pyramid with flashing lights running up and down its edges; on the other side of the street there’s a broke-down, boarded-up one-story motel and an empty lot.
The temporary structure the Red Bull folks built there was impressive in scale if not particularly flashy. Two big metal stages crowded with video displays face each other about 60 yards apart, with a third, elevated stage in the middle that housed, three stories off the ground, renowned DJ Mick Boogie and the evening’s painfully enthusiastic hostess, La La (whom you may better know as Carmelo Anthony’s boo and the reason he’s now in New York City). Off to the side, there were merch booths and a VIP bar/buffet (that’s all me) where we loaded up on nachos and thinly sliced steak. (Were the various food items having a Soundclash-esque battle of their own, the steak would have knocked the nachos early and often, but I digress.)
Now, in my mind, Cee Lo Green is a legend in the making and the Ting Tings are one-hit-wonders. That’s the way I came into things, anyway. But the British duo—which actually enlists a full cast of helpers in concert—would go on to hold its ground pretty well, faring better with the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” than Green and playing a more convincing reggae jam than its competition.
Having been to the odd taping and promotional event, I knew that televised events could be strange. I didn’t know the extent to which the audience was egged on by producers and hosts alike. When La La called to the crowd to get excited, they reacted with what I thought was a pretty appreciative round of applause. But La La was not impressed. A short silence ensued and then she came back to her minions below with a more emphatic request for excitement. “You know how this works,” she said (I’m paraphrasing, because I had nachos in my hand at the time, but this is a pretty close paraphrase), giving the crowd an ultimatum. “We’re going to do this as many times as it takes.” The hurdled masses responded with their full attention.
When La La was good and satisfied, she turned things over to Mick Boogie, who proceeded to play Lil’ Wayne, Michael Jackson, Too Short and—much to my chagrin—“Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And when Cee Lo took the stage, he brought his Robert Palmer-esque backing band (all-female, all in matching red dresses) with him. The smiling, shredding ladies were, on some levels, more entertaining than Mr. Green himself, but his voice (while leveled almost comically high for the first few songs) endured and his endurance level turned out to be through the roof. In fact, Cee Lo—adorned in a Clash t-shirt and some phenomenal diamond jewelry—was more active when his band wasn’t playing: He danced along to the Ting Tings, played the drums and interacted with the crowd throughout the night. Especially memorable were the moments when his pint-sized son joined him onstage for awesome dancing—at one point Cee Lo laid on his back and used the boy as a barbell, pushing the beaming kid into the air a couple dozen times.
Green and company played three original tunes in their opening set, and “Crazy” elicited a familiar reaction but not the kind of hysterics one would expect. Vegas’ memory is short, I told myself. That song is soooo 2006.
When the Ting Tings took the stage, I was kinda shocked by frontwoman Katie White’s intense lack of style. She had a definite Blondie thing going on, but her clothes were about as disjointed an affair as one could expect from any fashion plate, even a British pop star should probably have known better. The schoolgirl-meets-bike-punk left her looking like a colorblind Mouseketeer reliving the glory of her youth. Her lipstick spread like wildfire up her lip towards her nose. Her cheeks were blushed to Anime proportions. And don’t get me started on the haphazard choreography that came and went throughout the night….
If I over-critique the look, it’s only because I’m not exceptionally familiar with the music. But I was won over by an energetic live show and a nice mix of electronic and acoustic instrumentation onstage. The Tings have chemistry and to a lesser-but-still-formidable-extent, they have songs.
As the two bands played out rounds that varied in length from one four-minute song to half-hour mini-sets, the crowd was forced to run from once stage to the other if they intended to experience the event as a whole. As a fan, that’s kind of annoying. But for me—planted firmly in the middle for most of the show—it was fascinating. The two-stage arrangement actually leads to one of the most democratic show-going experiences that one could ask for. As the human tide shifts, one has the opportunity to move closer to the stage one is already at (and sacrifice seeing the other band up-close) or to run across the lot to the other stage and see every set from a less desirable spot at the back of the crowd.
That’s one in a handful of ways that the SoundClash breaks with tradition, and I’ve got to give the Red Bull folks credit for the sheer uniqueness of the event. When it’s clicking, the thing is kind of a genius combination of a Battle of the Bands and an all-star supergroup show. But when it’s not clicking—the “Clash” portion of the show, wherein bands play their own songs in different musical styles, was a mixed bag at best—it leaves you longing for a regular old concert.
But it was Cee Lo Green’s last stand that made the whole night worth it. Firstly, because he brought the legendary Goodie Mob out as special guests and played “Get Rich to This” to close out his set, and those guys were having a blast. But secondly, because the night’s final number was a mindfuck of epic proportions.
There was nothing shocking about Cee Lo playing “Fuck You” to end the SoundClash. There wasn’t anything surprising about the fact that he invited the Ting Tings to play along. In fact, we heard the two groups soundchecking the song when we first showed up.
But somewhere about a minute into the tune, it hit me: Everything about this moment was insane. There’s already, of course, heavy irony in “Fuck You” becoming a mega-hit. It’s a song about being passed over for a man of means, a phenomenon Cee Lo likely hasn’t experienced in some time—and the more popular the single becomes, the more troubling the narrative grows. When Green sings the song while decked out in diamond-encrusted jewelry—as he did onstage in Vegas—you start to question his assertion that he can’t afford a Ferrari. You also question just how much Red Bull is paying him to play a show that took an awful lot of preparation to make happen. Could it be that money was the overriding factor in his decision to play the show?
Let’s put that all aside for a minute. It’s entertainment, after all, and Green is entitled to step into character, no matter how jarring the chasm between fantasy and reality may seem. But when I saw a thousand-plus screaming fans sing along to every word, I about lost my shit. Here we were in Las Vegas, a town where the quest for riches isn’t just accepted but encouraged as the sole purpose of life—well, along with sex, which you get by having lots of money—and this crowd seemed wholeheartedly behind a narrative that demonizes women who choose cash over personality.
My brain melted on the spot not because I thought this mass of people was, for one shining moment, rejecting the values of the culture they are confronted with every day—granted, some of them likely drove from L.A., but that’s another 1,000 words—but because I don’t think they got it.
See, Las Vegas is the worst place I’ve ever been. It took me three trips to decide, definitively, that I hate its guts. But now I’m ready to posit that this really may be the worst place in the world. I don’t say that out of moral indignation, I say it out of common sense: It’s a city whose entire blueprint is to take from the poor and gives to the rich. It’s a city that rewards hack entertainers because they were once popular. It’s a city that goes bigger and bigger despite the fact that nothing about it is sustainable (where does all the water come from?). It’s a city where you pay a $20 cover for the privilege of buying $8 beers. It’s a city where frat boys from all over the world come to play grab-ass and women from all over the world come to out-skank one another. It’s a fake city, a make-believe city where only money, power and fame matter and where corruption in local government is expected on every level, and often celebrated. It’s a rotten, ugly, soulless place and I’ve made my last visit.
So why did all those people sing along? They sang along because the song is huge. And in Las Vegas, being huge is everything.
Photos by Scott Oseth:
After we stumbled back to the MGM Grand, Scott convinced me to head down to the after-party (at the dubiously named Studio 54) for a drink. As much as I hate Vegas, the people-watching is pretty unbeatable, and I thought I might be able to handle another hour of it. We had lost Henry, by this point (he’d fall through the hotel door the next morning at 10 am, just before our checkout time, and say “Ta-Da!”), but we stood in line, where Scott tried to use his Red Bull photo pass as evidence that he was a V.I.P. and thus eligible for skipping the line. When he found a sympathetic bouncer, he nodded for me to follow him. I froze and said “I don’t think I can do it. It’s too gross. I’m just going to go people-watch for awhile.” Just then a skinny girl in a black dress grabbed my arm.
“Let’s go people-watch,” she said.
Scott looked confused. I probably did, too. Scott headed in to the club without me. The girl let go of my arm. “It’s all fucking fake tits and bullshit in there,” she told me. “You don’t want to go in there.” She seemed upset, and she was visibly drunk.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m fine. I just don’t want to be here. Where are you from?”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m from San Diego. I guess that makes us polar opposites.”
“Idunno, my brother used to live in San Diego and it sounded okay.” I'm bad at conversations.
“It sucks,” she said. Her eyes wandered, scanning the crowd. “Nobody likes me here because I don’t have fake boobs. They don’t like my boobs.”
“I’m sure your boobs are just fine,” I reassured her. Then her friend, a short, spiky-haired guy with a form-fitting print tee on, came up to us. “Sorry,” he began, in a decidedly Vegas I-don’t-mean-to-wreck-your-game-bro way. “Mylene, we’re getting in. Are you coming?”
She looked at me. “Oh, I’m not going in. You should go!”
“I don’t want to go, but it’s my friend’s birthday,” she said. “You should come with us and have a drink!”
“No, I’m cool,” I said. She grabbed my arm again and pulled me over to her friend, a short Asian girl with little hands. I was introduced to the spiky-haired guy and the short girl, and they both gave me the same skeptical look. I’m sure I looked just as weirded out.
As they were pulling into the bar, I dislodged my arm from Mylene’s grip and attempted to let her down gently. “You guys should go in. I’m going to go to bed, I think.”
“No, you should come!
“No, I really think you guys should have fun. I’m okay, really.”
By now I think Mylene had got a good look at me and realized we were, indeed, polar opposites. She may not have had fake boobs, but she was ready for Vegas in a way that I obviously wasn’t, with my three-day stubble, two-month-old jeans, beer gut and near-complete lack of self-respect. Conversation would have been horribly strained before I found some excuse to leave, or worse yet we would have gotten along and I’d have to clumsily explain that I have a girlfriend, Emily, and she’s really awesome. And so she saw some degree of all this in a suddenly burst of sobriety. “Okay,” she said, a half-frown on her face and the distinct, familiar look of pity in her eyes. “Sorry!” It was like she was apologizing for being who she was, apologizing that she needed to know what went on in there, where the fake-boob girls ruled the floor and she was just an afterthought. Maybe there was a place for her after all.
Mylene turned back towards the club. I walked out of the casino
and into the fake Vegas street. And I got a shot of depression that seemed primal
and universal. And stupidly selfish. I thought “Nobody is like me here.” Then I
thought, “what if nobody is like me anywhere?” And that question kept rattling around, and I watched every fat dad and street kid, every prostitute and bro, every business suit dude and every sad old lady move slowly up escalators and down streets. I walked by the Statue of Liberty-turned-9/11 memorial, where Japanese tourists flashed peace signs and took each others photos, big smiles.
And I fought the urge to call Emily at two in the morning. I sat down in front of a slot machine with little cartoon hamburgers and fries on the front. I took out all my cash, $80, and started hitting the “max bet” button. I decided I wasn’t going to stop playing until I made a thousand dollars or went broke.
I went broke.