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.

Comments (36)

  1. Ne-Yo sounded off key at best. It really annoyed me having to watch through, having got up early in the morning to watch here in Australia.

    Alicia Keys was sort of boring and I like her songs. I do. But the mix we got here on ESPN didn’t sound all that amazing. Let alone the crappy dancers and costume choice (thats subjective on my side of things).

    I would have been so much happier with no music at all and perhaps less filler at the start.

    Finally I enjoyed the Inside NBA/Kevin Hart banter at halftime. Wasn’t the best, but was seriously entertaining.

  2. Sounded like NeYo and Alicia Keys were partying a little too hard the night before.

  3. I don’t know why I read reviews of things that I already watched.

  4. Why was Alicia Keys performing Empire State of Mind in Houston? Seemed inappropriate

    • That’s what I thought, why do I want to hear about new york’s jerk off anthem in houston, let alone two years after it’s peak as a single?

  5. Kevin Hart is the worst. Why is he everywhere on all star weekend?

  6. Please don’t comment on music that you don’t know anything about. You can think Macklemore’s “wings” is plodding that is your own opinion, but to call it self-righteous is just ignoring the lyrics of the song all together. The song is all about societies attachment to material things and how we are judged based upon or material possessions. That is sort of the opposite of self-righteous isn’t it? Not going to disagree at all with the reviews of the other artists performances but from now on do some background research before you comment on music that you are probably showing your age by reviewing.

    • No, that’s pretty much exactly what self-righteous means.

      • Yup, self-righteous.

        • He is calling Macklemore self-righteous when Macklemore is rapping a song about how things like shoes and other material possessions don’t make you superior. When the definition of self-righteous is a feeling or display of moral superiority, the context that its being used in here is actually the opposite of what the song means.

  7. I think you’re being overcritical. We expect these artists to be good and when they are just that the response is “it sucked” “it was boring”. The 2 major issues I had were that they keep recycling performers (Alicia keys having performed at HT recently) and the performances were dragged out for too long.

    • Fair point. Alicia was certainly more uninspired than she was embarrassing, though Ne-Yo and a couple others were a little bit of both.

  8. I would listen to Alicia Keys sing the same songs every year in exchange for Kenny Smith taking the whole weekend off.

  9. “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.”

    I’m not sure what’s worse… The performances the NBA provided (Fall Out Boy? For real?) or the fact that the performers in the quoted text are considered legitimately better choices.

    • Theyre music may not be better in some people’s opinions, but I can definitely agree that Jay Z and Drake would have put on a way better performance. Never seen or heard anything by 2 Chains, so cant say anything about him

  10. Every time I turned on the All-star festivities Sunday it was someone performing music I hadn’t heard and didn’t like. I would have preferred basketball.

    • And btw, the singing hook on Empire State of Mind is almost identical to the verse part of Coldplay’s The Scientist. Can we please put that boring, uninspired song to bed for good please?

  11. Ellie Gouldings’ Lights was the worst! I swear I hear boos on TV. She sounded like she ran outta breath the entire song. I wished she lip-synced.

  12. tldr; they all suck..

  13. that was hard to read

  14. The NBA should focus on basketball. Fuck pop culture.

  15. alicia keys also struggled MIGHTILY while singing… she couldnt hit any notes and you could tell she was bummed by the look on her face (although she did fine with the choreo)… she also messed up while she was on the piano

  16. Good article, as a basketball fan who just wanted to see the best in the league chuck up 3′s all night, I was pretty annoyed by all the pop culture. (I thought basketball was hip-hop’s sport anyway)

  17. Ne-Yo sounded like diarrhea spraying against a piece of aluminum foil.

  18. nice article, Andrew.
    I, too, find Kevin Hart and Nick Cannon insufferable. Hart reminds me of a 7 year old who decided to eat all his Halloween candy on one night.
    And the gods of pop culture force Nick Cannon on us like the NBA forces Brandon Knight.

  19. The pop culture is there to draw a larger crowd, however insignificant a draw it will be its the NBA lol. They know us hood folk will be watching for the ball no matter what and will sit through this trash, BUT they know they can get some chicka’s and little billy and susies to watch if they throw this stuff in.

  20. I’m sure Kurtis Blow isn’t up to much these days:

    Just have him updated his “Basketball” song with current players and preform that.

  21. the whole music thing has gotten out of hand! i set my PVR to record all star sunday, and i was trying to fast forward all the useless performances by artists that really , arnt that great all respect to AK though, but not a basketball type of performance, but there was so much music and talking the pvr only recoreded to half time because TSN never set enough time for the useless music performances.
    morale of the story , they are focusing more on the music than the actual game and the players, even though the bill russell part was great, but i hate how every sport league has to have some kind of musical performance just play the game

  22. Ne-yo was terrible… And I don’t understand why the sound mix leaguepass had was so incredibly bad…

    However my biggest annoyance all weekend was the leaguepass crew scrolling thru the international media while the Harlem shake was going down… I wanted to see that… :-)

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