(many thanks to Shelly Bell of The Open Onion for the live concert videos)
I tend to take myself and writing about music waaay too seriously. We all do. Those of us who are fully invested in the ebb and flow of the music industry in the over-information age don’t have a choice. We’re inundated by bands, DJs, EPs, mixtapes and streaming albums on a daily basis, and happily take advantage of the abundance of sounds presented to us. I recently had a 14-day cycle where I listened to nearly 250 new tracks, and found that by the end of two weeks, everything sounded exactly the same, or, even worse, music had become a commodity instead of the great source of joy in a largely joyless past five years. Realizing that a life without joy isn’t a life that I wanted to lead, the opportunity to review the talents of teen pop stars Mindless Behavior, Jacob Latimore, Lil Twist and Kayla Brianna at DC’s Constitution Hall on Saturday night seemed like the perfect no-brainer, an oasis in what had become, though over-indulged, a barren desert of noise.
Teen pop kept me a fan of music, just as it does for every generation. We are all introduced to music by our parents, who succeed in cultivating us as children into appreciators of classic sounds until that one day occurs when we realize that kids our own age make the same music, only better! Thus and so was the curious case of Saturday night. When opener Kayla Brianna hit the stage and asked the crowd if they knew about “love,” the largely 14-and-under crowd responded in a manner most tepid. When she quickly amended her question with “love for…MINDLESS BEHAVIOR!”, the kids roared. It was easily the most telling moment of her perfunctory three song set of openers from a cute, teenage neophyte. When 14,”love” is not a notion equated with longing for companionship or heartbreak, it’s the only way to describe the fact that you like the public persona and Right On! magazine posters of a boy named Princeton a little bit more than the men named Tyga and Drake.
Speaking of the Young Money pair, Lil Twist’s set proved that teen pop plays best when doused in the most overly familiar of tropes. I had forgotten that the 90s popular Gumby haircut was still a possibility until the slender YMCMB newcomer took the stage. He’s light years away from being a major player, but in being the saccharine version of Lil Wayne and his stablemates’ Patron and Bacardi doused rhyme realities, it works. Yes, it may appear a bit odd and slightly perverse to ask teenage girls and children in attendance to “twerk it” through your rhymes, but that’s where clearly I’ve finally become old. In the age of the internet, impure thoughts and actions are definitely at a different level. “Twerking it” or playing Tyga’s stripper anthem “Rack City” between acts? Permissible. When the kids know all the words to the dirty version. Expected, but still slightly discomforting that in the moment when I’d expect a parent to wash their child’s mouth out with soap, it’s the new mother/daughter bonding moment.
The most intriguing of moments at shows like these are when adults become so impressed by the talent on the stage that they’re not even the slightest bit embarrassed to be in the room. Under that definition, 15-year-old Jacob Latimore was easily the star of the evening. Appearing onstage from out of a shrouded “magic” cabinet, the teen star’s performance showcased an awareness far beyond his years, the prerequisite necessity to achieving the discovery of the oft discussed “X factor” that defines pop stardom. Add to this the ability to handle the most difficult of steps in the Michael Jackson meets pop-locking school of modern pop dance and a growing ability to handle song material that that defies definition by levels of maturity, and his performance portended well for a phenomenal future ahead.
But the headliners of the show were Mindless Behavior, and for just cause. If unaware, they are the largest act in urban teenage pop at the moment. Imagine that someone shrank the ersatz heart and soul of Drake and inserted it into the bodies of four post-pubescent teens with swagger, talent and all of the stereotypical necessities for pop stardom. They exploded onto the stage amid a surge of screams in furious lockstep dance, a cavalcade of smiles, epaulets and intense concentration. It was as if with every word they breathed, the minds and hearts of the daughters of the world (and their seemingly ceaseless amounts of “love” were on the line). And yes, I said epaulets! The necessity for the ghost of the King of Pop to be in the room at events like these is obvious. Michael begat the New Edition of Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike (Ralph and later, Johnny, too), with acts like Another Bad Creation, B2K and now the Jacob Latimores and MB’s of the world following in tow. Outside of impossibly catchy pop ditties like “Mrs. Right” and “My Girl,” the highlight of their set? A breakdown of the roots of their pop stardom, as they performed signature songs and danced signature steps of the aforementioned classic talents.
But at the end of the evening, there’s only one thing I will personally remember from the evening. As Mindless Behavior took the stage, I took a visual accounting of the group. Prodigy, Ray Ray and Roc Royal have silly names, silly haircuts and can sing like birds of paradise. But Princeton? He’s been blessed with a head of hair that can only be described as scrumtrulescent. Large, curly black locks with sheen, bounce and life, that when added to a smile are that perfect blend of David Cassidy meets pre-teen MJ that reminds you of the inherent greatness of the simple, innocent necessities once required to take pop sounds to the next level. At a time when it’s so easy for me to forget, it was great to have a night to remember.