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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Pop Music Review

Wango Tango Plays It Hit-Heavy Safe

Top 40 groups, not hard-edged rockers, rule with young fans at KIIS-FM concert.

May 15, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1967, Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees at the Hollywood Bowl--and got booed.

It's the kind of thing that came with the territory of Top 40 pop back then, when seemingly disparate acts were lumped together in the same format.

Saturday at Dodger Stadium, in the KIIS-FM (102.7) annual Wango Tango concert, rocker Lenny Kravitz played before Latin-pop sensation Enrique Iglesias and urban star Sisqo (the "Thong Song" guy) on a show that also included teenqueen Jessica Simpson, pop's Marc Anthony and pop-rockers Sugar Ray and the Goo Goo Dolls--and half the audience sat on its hands for most of Kravitz's set.

Only when the five young men of current supreme teen rulers 'N Sync (serving as show hosts, but not otherwise performing) joined him to sing along on his 1999 hit "Fly" did the place come alive.

Not much has changed. OK, Kravitz is not the bold innovator Hendrix (an obvious role model) was. And when Hendrix opened for the Monkees, he was pretty much unknown in the U.S., whereas Kravitz is an MTV regular with a career spanning nearly 15 years--about the median age of the female-heavy audience Saturday. Kravitz, as well, could easily have gotten the 60,000-plus people at the stadium all rocking right off the bat if he'd simply played "Fly" and his version of "American Woman"--the two songs that would be familiar to KIIS listeners--to start off.

Instead, he led his band through three stretched-out, hard-edged funk jams on songs totally unknown to the core KIIS audience and the only slightly more known anthem "Let Love Rule" before encoring with the two hits and bringing out 'N Sync. And that, despite the relatively tepid response, may illustrate why Kravitz has had a long, strong career track--and why many of the others on the bill may not achieve that.

Act after act Saturday pandered to the crowd, by and large playing only the hits, familiar ear candy in their short sets. Kravitz dared to give the fans something different and more challenging--and if he only reached half of them, well, half of 60,000 still isn't bad for a day's work. But that notion gets lost in an era when 'N Sync can sell nearly 2.5 million albums in one week.

The fact is that pandering may lead to big cheers and big sales, but it also comes at the expense of substance and, ultimately, longevity--something even the most rabid fans of these acts not only accept, but expect.

That's fine by KIIS management. The station, revenue-wise the top radio outlet in the nation, is all about what's hot right now, and when something else is hot tomorrow, it will be about that. It's business as usual for Top 40, as it has been for decades.

The problem at this "right now" juncture is that nearly all the acts seem to be just a series of replaceable parts. That left this year's Wango Tango a little hollow.

Last year, there was some sense of excitement, particularly with the "Wild Wild West" razzle-dazzle of Will Smith, a bona fide multimedia superstar, and the equally glitzy arrival of Ricky Martin. This year, there was no one of Smith's dominant stature, and Iglesias seemed just this year's Martin (minus the showmanship), while Simpson filled the slot last year occupied by then-ascending Britney Spears.

*

Sisqo, in the closing slot, made a big splash with his and his crew's intricate, well-executed choreography, but only performed two songs. Iglesias offered little more than sex appeal, saddled by an accompanying sense of arrogance. Anthony was more engaging with an unforced, personable manner--even if his music too relies on both Latin music and pop cliches.

Simpson won kudos for handling technical glitches with grace but lost points for the blatant sexual tease of her dancing and outfit (skin-tight silver reflective pants made her look like an anorexic disco ball).

Ironically, in this pop age, it was the rockers that made the best statements, with Kravitz's emphasis of his art over his commerce, and Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath's continued warmth and obvious appreciation for the band's success, which pumped up the band's breezy, sunny-day songs.

Also scoring was Hanson, making a "surprise" appearance following the disposable-by-design dance-pop of Italian trio Eiffel 65. The Hanson brothers, like Kravitz, are trying to transcend pop transience and establish some rock credibility, and the several new songs they played, before ending with their bubbly breakthrough teeny-bopper hit "MmmBop," made a good case for their progress and growth.

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