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Pop Music Review

Wango Tango Serves Up Pop-Pourri

The Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Blue Man Group and Wayne Newton mix it up with Ricky Martin, Backstreet Boys and the 'Lady Marmalade' divas.

June 19, 2001|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is pop: Parents, teens and little kids, all rocking out Sunday to the vintage disco beat of the Bee Gees' 1976 chart-topper "You Should Be Dancing," as fireworks above Dodger Stadium capped the veteran group's rare Los Angeles appearance closing KIIS-FM's two-day concert extravaganza Wango Tango.

This is pop, too: Saturday's headliner Ricky Martin, setting off his own fireworks and shaking his bon-bon through "She Bangs," "Livin' La Vida Loca" and other favorites in a high-energy half-hour performance touted as his only 2001 North American concert date.

And this, most definitely, is pop: tadpole divas Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mya, decked out Sunday in revealing finery while shrieking "Lady Marmalade" and wriggling around a set inspired by the song's "Moulin Rouge" movie origins, as Missy Elliott rapped a bit and then, in a puzzling anticlimax, wandered off into the audience.

Such moments did deliver on the annual festival's promise of diverse modern-pop-chart thrills for fans of all ages. But while the organizers scrupulously followed the schedule, the time-wasting between the mostly brief sets made the overall effect of Wango Tango not unlike listening to commercial radio: 20 minutes of shtick, ads and public-service announcements, then one song you like.

The pop-pourri included wrinkled rockers Aerosmith, who provided a rare spontaneous moment Sunday when singer Steven Tyler wrapped himself around Pink as she wailed exuberantly on "Walk This Way." On Saturday, sexy pop-reggae imp Shaggy fired up the crowd before a 30-minute Backstreet Boys turn in which the quintet donned (and doffed) crowd-pleasing Lakers jerseys while engaging in its usual blend of dance-floor calisthenics and sometimes on-key harmonizing.

Eclectic singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado (Saturday) and modern R&B local hero Tyrese (Sunday) displayed up-and-coming promise, their charisma and vocal talents separating them from the pack. R&B-pop crooner Joe held his own Saturday, but latest sensation Jessica Simpson didn't distinguish herself by showing off her best I-wanna-be-Janet-Jackson moves while singing the title and other tracks from her Top-10-debuting album, "Irresistible."

The many fresh-faced hopefuls included teen-poppers 3LW, Samantha Mumba and Krystal, plus funky chick Nikka Costa (Saturday); made-for-TV quintet Eden's Crush and made-by-Puffy quartet Dream (Sunday); and actual bands American Hi-Fi and Vertical Horizon (Sunday).

Saturday also offered a taste of Las Vegas with appearances by old-school crooner Wayne Newton and modern dazzlers Blue Man Group.

These facets reflected how pop can be tarted up, dressed down, newly exciting, rehashed to the point of mindless ritual and even truly innovative--sometimes all at once.

This convergence somewhat occurred in the "Lady Marmalade" presentation, which was colorful (despite Lil' Kim's absence), but hardly measured up to the sheer ripping drama of LaBelle's 1975 funky No. 1 original.

Anyway, the best example of the wild 'n' woolly kicks pop can provide came from avant-garde musical theater troupe Blue Man Group, not actual hit makers but a hugely successful pop-art phenomenon. Dressed in black and (of course) painted blue, the trio and its band were Saturday's highlight for sheer spectacle and sonic pyrotechnics, doing thought-provoking and delightfully absurd things with marshmallows, paint, tubular percussion instruments, silver streamers and booming, Burundi-style drumming.

This performance partly commented on how art and commerce can become confusingly juxtaposed, which was fitting given the event's depressingly overt commercialism. Sure, the sponsors deserved their due, but did that have to include inundating concert-goers with giant-screen ads for soda, beer, wireless services, rib joints, auto retailers, etc.?

And Saturday's "special guest host" Britney Spears was there almost exclusively to supervise a contest sponsored by her employer, Pepsi. True, making commercials is a pop tradition, but who ever identified, say, the Jefferson Airplane as that band from the white Levis ad? Nowadays, it's conceivable that someone unfamiliar with Spears (and, yes, kids, such people do exist) would see her simply as that hot chick from the Pepsi spots.

*

Then again, who would have thought that 34 years after the band's recording debut, the Bee Gees could still get young girls (to say nothing of their moms and dads) screaming in the aisles? The music of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb is such a prototype for today's teen-oriented sounds--the unabashed sentiment, close harmonies and melodic blend of black and white styles--that even such ancient selections as the 1967 heartache ballad "To Love Somebody" could seem familiar. And everybody in the arena seemed to sing along during the '70s disco classic "Stayin' Alive."

Indeed, the by turns emotionally nuanced and purely butt-shaking 50-minute set underscored the Bee Gees' status as the only group at Wango Tango to have Top 10 hits in three consecutive decades. The good reception for material from the band's new album, "This Is Where I Came In," further emphasized that the pop cycle has gone around again.

Seeing their mature, smiling faces on the big screen was also a potent reminder that despite today's emphasis on dewy youth, staying power is ultimately about substance. In a marketplace where few acts endure beyond their second albums, this obsession with prettiness has an obvious downside. Three decades from now, the Bee Gees' music may well fuel another spin around the pop turnstile, but most of Wango Tango's no-longer-adorable participants will be forgotten.

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