Perhaps the fact that a highly compromised version of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ already plodding and self-righteous “Wings” was being used as the official promotional song of All-Star Weekend should have been taken as a bad omen. And once the marquee acts of the weekend were announced, it wasn’t exactly the most exciting of lineups, so I don’t think any pop-leaning NBA fans were going into this weekend expecting three nights at Coachella. Still, I don’t think any of us could have expected a weekend quite this miserable in terms of pop music, a lifeless, uninspiring and occasionally downright unprofessional mess that dragged down the weekend on the whole.
To be fair, Saturday wasn’t quite that bad. Phillip Phillips was eminently respectable performing his one song, Ellie Goulding was striking as always performing hers, and though Fall Out Boy had some sound issues (and did they really all have to be wearing MJ jerseys? Yeah, yeah, 50th birthday and all, but c’mon, someone rep for Joakim) the surprise 2 Chainz appearance certainly went a long way to making up for any technical difficulties. Nothing iconic or unforgettable, but nothing all that embarrassing either. Hard to get mad at the NBA for too much of that.
Sunday got off on a bum note, though, with the NBA All-Star Pre-Game Concert on NBA TV — a pretty big misnomer, considering the hour-long special contained maybe 10-15 minutes of actual music, and far more of host Terrence J calling up famous annoying people onstage to banter awkwardly for a couple minutes. But when the music kicked off, it was expired rapper B.o.B playing most of his hits from three years ago, with his unmemorable verses overshadowed by the disembodied voices of Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars (neither present, unsurprisingly) singing the song’s far-more-memorable hooks, as he pranced about on stage waiting for his turn. He eventually got to his more recent and feature-free (though much less popular) “So Good,” but not before he half-heartedly rapped along to the hook to A$AP Rocky’s “F—in’ Problems” — the sparse, curse-free parts that he could get away with on live TV, anyway — for no discernible reason.
Ludacris, up next, was a little bit better — he also mostly played old hits, but they were better old hits, and they were all his — though the geographical implications of having two Atlanta rappers at a Houston All-Star Game remain somewhat confusing. At least the music and vibe felt appropriate, which could certainly not be said for the final pre-game performer: Ke$ha, whose brand of high-energy, higher-sleaze dance-pop could arguably be construed as Jock Jam-ish in the right context (Russell Westbrook would probably say so, anyway), but whose goth-y, campy, possibly surrealist performance felt super out of place as pump-up music. It wasn’t memorable enough to be a catastrophe — the most striking things about K-Money’s performance were her backup dancers, one of whom looked like Cher from the “If I Could Turn Back Time” video and one of whom looked like Anthony Kiedis auditioning for the Black Eyed Peas — but suffice to say, it did not get the party started.
Ne-Yo, charged with providing the intro music to the game proper, was perhaps the most-maligned performer of the night, and not unjustly so. The EDM-influenced pop hits he performed, “Let’s Go” and “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself),” weren’t bad choices to get the night started, but the singer sounded off throughout both songs, possibly plagued by monitor issues (read Questlove’s timeline for a practical breakdown of the part the mix and the stadium played in the performance’s troubles) but also just struggling to hit a bunch of the songs’ more challenging high notes. The fact that the performance lasted for a full two-and-a-half songs, plus player intros, in an “Entertainment Series” that was already pushing the game’s tip-off to about an hour after the game was scheduled to start (if you believe TV listings, anyway), wasn’t buying Ne-Yo much good will from increasingly impatient NBA fans, either.
Alicia Keys’ headlining performance at halftime wasn’t inappropriate or unprofessional. It was just incredibly boring and considerably irrelevant. Keys performed four songs: “Empire State of Mind (Pt. II),” a funked up version of the recent “Girl on Fire,” 2007 chart-topper “No One” and the new-ish “New Day.” If you were already a big fan of Keys, and I’m not sure there are as many of those people out there as TNT might think, you probably enjoyed the performance pretty well, but if you’re not … well, there was really no reason to watch this at all.
Never mind that anybody who’s watched any major music-related TV event of the last two months — like, say, the 12-12-12 Concert for Hurricane Sandy, the Super Bowl, the Grammys or even the Inaugural Ball — has already seen Alicia performing one or more of these songs fairly recently. Never mind that none of these songs are all that good in the first place, with the best of the four being “Empire,” a sequel to a much better and more popular song on which Alicia was only a featured artist. The real insult is that she already performed two of them, “Empire” and “No One,” at All-Star Game halftime just three years ago. The biggest musical event of the NBA season, and we get reheated leftovers from one of America’s most blandly agreeable pop stars.
Now, some of you may scoff at my referring to NBA halftime as if it’s a performing role of any particular prestige, and that’s fair. After all, Pitbull was the featured performer last year, so clearly you don’t need to be a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer or Pazz & Jop winner to be a credible ASG halftime entertainer. But I don’t see why the platform can’t be used to at least feature some of the more prominent, representative acts in contemporary popular music. For instance, regardless of your feelings with Rihanna, it’d be hard to argue that her performance two years ago — including special guests Drake and Kanye West — wasn’t pretty on the nose for what was going on in pop at that point in time. Being the cooler younger sibling of the Super Bowl halftime show seems to me like a reasonable and attainable goal for NBA All-Star halftime, and you’re never gonna get that with Alicia Keys, especially not in 2013.
The really sad part of the weekend was that a number of guys who would’ve made better selections for halftime performers, or performers throughout the weekend, were actually on the premises the entire time, but were unable or unwilling to perform. Jay-Z, Drake, 2 Chainz (who guested on the Fall Out Boy track but did not perform solo), even Trinidad James — all of ‘em could’ve bailed out the weekend, if only TNT had asked. But Alicia Keys was the safe choice. Hell, it’s the safe choice that every major music-related telecast has made in 2013, so it’s hard to get too mad at the ASG for doing the same, and so she got the call. Maybe it’s more fun for Drizzy and company just to go down and hobnob with their baller pals for three days without the stress of having to perform, anyway.
Of course, pop music wasn’t the only pop culture establishment to embarrass at All-Star festivities — comedy also took it pretty well on the chin, with the insufferable Kevin Hart and Nick Cannon the two most prominent comedians of the weekend, with Hart in particular invading a far-too-large percentage of the weekend with his oppressive brand of grating antagonism. The natural blend of sports and pop culture that NBA All-Star Weekend provides is one of the reasons I love it so much, but when both the funniest bits and the best musical bits come during the commercial breaks — the very clever Sears fake airport RomCom and the impossibly silly “Who’s your founding father???” Honda Presidents’ Day commercial song both came to win me over in a big way — maybe you need to get a new creative direction.
Or just get Jrue Holiday to do the whole thing.