When a bride flings her bouquet into the air, young single women, so goes the cultural cliché, get downright aggressive. When Justin Bieber throws his hat into a crowd of teenage girls, hell hath no fury like it.
Suddenly they're scrambling on the floor and shrieking and elbows are flying like playground point guards. One of the girls in front of me grabbed it -- a fresh, red Yankees ball cap -- and began to struggle for breath. She started to put in on, then she caught sight of the jealous, snarling looks on the other girls' faces. She clutched it tightly.
Such is the seething frenzy of Bieber fever. The 16-year-old wunderkind headlined Saturday night's B96 Jingle Bash concert at the Allstate Arena, muddling through a performance that already reeks of too much professionalism.
Jumping onto the stage in a white outfit with black, fingerless gloves, lil' Bieber launched into "Love Me," as if he had to demand it. His band strained to be heard above the screaming, sold-out crowd. ("I love you, Justin!" cried the girl next to me, repeatedly, unaware or uncaring of the futility. Her handmade T-shirt read: "I'm Mrs. Bieber. Deal with it!") He thrust himself into choreography with four backup dancers that looked as if they were fighting, a la Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video.
Next, more of the same -- flawless vocals (his microphone was live, but there seemed to be recorded assistance) and carefully structured dancing throughout eight songs, including the ballad "Pray" and closing with his biggest hit "Baby." Each was studied and over-rehearsed. Gone was the youthful imp of just a few months ago, an international star who still seemed to be a free-spirited kid. In his place, a well-trained marketing machine. "I want to tell you a little about myself," he began after "One Time," delivering a short homily about believing in oneself. "People told me I'd never make it," he said, appearing to bare his soul. But -- wait for it -- then he segued: "People never told me ... I'd make a 3-D movie. Let's watch a trailer!" Roll the ad for "Never Say Never," a biopic of the teen phenom due in February. Shameless.
But you don't go to the Jingle Bash expecting artistic integrity. (Number of times during this show the crowd was ordered to "make some noise!" -- 36. Number of times we were instructed to put our hands in the air -- 87.) The Beeb capped a four-and-a-half hour marathon of commercially viable but mostly artistically bankrupt performers. Package shows like this used to be standard back in the '50s and '60s, stocked with acts on their way up and acts on their way down. The Jingle bash had the former (Far East Movement, Bruno Mars) and the latter (Nelly, Jason Derulo, Mike Posner).
Mars -- a songwriter and producer with his Midas touch on a half dozen Top 10 hits this year, from B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You" to his own "Just the Way You Are" -- just earned a bevy of Grammy nominations. His short set possessed an air of entitlement. Over just five songs, Mars, 25, in his black hipster hat, maintained a look on his face like the guy who knows he's going home with the prettiest girl in the room. But he and his six-piece band cruised in second gear, building just enough steam to hint at Mars' triple threat -- his smooth voice, his way with melody and his guitar chops. He ripped out a Chuck Berry-like guitar solo at the end of his cover of "Money (That's What I Want)," which he introduced as the inspiration for his hit with Travis McCoy, "Billionaire."
Far East Movement got the party started, entering the stage in LED-lit space helmets. Their blippy dance-pop is not spacey, though, and ridiculously simple. Which is why it's so much fun. With only three hits to boast, that's how many songs they performed -- "Girls on the Dancefloor," "Rocketeer" and their No. 1 hit "Like a G6," which this summer gave us a great new term for tipsy: getting "slizzered."
Chart-topping rapper Nelly opened the show's series of sad sets. Nelly's been doing a lot of press for his new album, "5.0," whining that he's viewed as an underdog despite lifetime sales of 20 million records. But when you sling raps as cartoonishly as he and his St. Lunatics posse did Saturday night -- and you're on the Jingle Bash bill 10 years into your career -- you can't expect America to take you [ITAL]that[END ITAL] seriously. Saturday's transition from the fine groove of 2002's "Hot in Herre"[CQ WITH TWO 2 R's] to the TV-commercial ditty of his latest hit, "Just a Dream," screamed downward slide. Most of the crowd seemed bewildered by the 36-year-old, whose "Country Grammar" hit big a decade ago when much of this crowd was still in onesies.
After that came Derulo, who was introduced as "one of the best dancers on the planet," which perhaps was supposed to excuse his boring songs and tepid voice, and the utter emptiness of Posner, whose bloodless singing was just a bump on the road to Bieber.