The iHEARTRADIO MUSIC FESTIVAL is a huge event for publicity — but not a big payday for artists. That’s because most artists are willing to perform for next to nothing. They choose to forgo a big paycheck in exchange for a media blitz, hoping that the radio giant that runs the festival, iHEARTMEDIA INC. — known until this week as CLEAR CHANNEL — will keep playing their songs on its 800-plus stations.
Host RYAN SEACREST told USA TODAY regarding the concert lineup, “You can’t believe they’re all in one arena — it just doesn’t happen.”
Seems like just yesterday CLEAR CHANNEL launched the first iHEARTRADIO MUSIC FESTIVAL in LAS VEGAS, but this year’s edition is the fourth annual such affair. On the very week in which the radio giant changed its name to iHEARTMEDIA, its namesake concert drew huge crowds to the MGM GRAND, with tickets going for upwards of $750 on the secondary market.
The show got underway with a short video depicting TAYLOR SWIFT emerging in front of the MGM GRAND in a black CADILLAC with the license plate “1986,” promoting her upcoming album, sashaying through the casino, then dodging laser security in a JAMES BOND type spoof to grab a crystal microphone from RYAN SEACREST and hitting the stage. SWIFT donned a studded pink halter top and cheerleader skirt for a five-song medley that started with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” then segues into “22,” puncutated with a four-piece horn section, and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” “We’re here because we all love listening to the radio,” she said, before introducing “Love Story,” a song “I wrote when I was 17, but I changed the ending,” performing it on keyboard. “We listen to the radio to escape or dance,” she proclaimed, then launches into “Shake It Off,” complete with honking sax, a suitably breathless finale.
COLDPLAY was up next, CHRIS MARTIN and company casual in T-shirts and jeans. “This is a well-dressed crowd,” mused MARTIN. “Better dressed than we are.” What followed was a four-song mini-greatest hits set of “Clocks,” “Viva La Vida” and “Paradise,” before tackling a pair of songs from the recent “Ghost Stories,” in “Ink” and a “Sky Full of Stars” which is the show’s first big moment, the traditional confetti showering the audience. “Don’t spend all your money,” sayid MARTIN before the group bow.
NICKI MINAJ was next, resplendent in studded black bra, and patterned tights that brought out her best “ass-ets” for a set that started off with “Super Bass,” then “Pills N Potions” and “Moment 4 Life” before she posed the question, “Can a Trinidaddian girl from JAMAICA, QUEENS, get hood for about six minutes?” She then went into “Beez in the Trap” and a snippet from her remix of BEYONCE’s “Flawless.” ARIANA GRANDE joined her for their current smash, “Bang Bang” and then it’s “Anaconda” to wrap up the set.
A very pregnant ALICIA KEYS made a surprise appearance, sitting down at the piano for a set that included her newest single, “We Are Here” and some anniversary shout-outs to her husband, producer SWIZZ BEATZ.
Top 40 mainstays BASTILLE were up next with a four-song set that climaxed with the smash, “Pompeii.” EDM star STEVE AOKI proved a DJ could fill a large arena, pulling out all the stops, including bringing on WILL.I.AM, hitting someone in the crowd with a cake and having FALL OUT BOY’s PETE WENTZ surf the crowd in a lifeboat as he played their collaboration, “Back to Earth.” AOKI worked the crowd into a frenzy with remixes of LINKIN PARK’s “A Light That Never Comes” and KID CUDI’s “Pursuit of Happiness,”proving electronic music is right in the mix when it comes to pop crossover.
In his red and white cardigan sweater and matching boots, JASON DERULO made the most of his five minutes, dazzling with “Trumpets” and “Talk Dirty.” MOTLEY CRUE brought some old-fashioned hard rock pyrotechnics to the floor, starting off with TOMMY LEE on piano and a leggy four-piece string section for the power ballad, “Home Sweet Home,” before reverting to form, and turning the large arena into a strip club for “Girls Girls Girls,” which came complete with motorcycles and pole dancers. The smoke-and-fire-filled “Kickstart My Heart” brought out the flames, leaving the crowd in stunned silence as MICK MARS almost tripped on his high-heeled boots while playing a scorching solo at the lip of the stage. Country-rockers ZAC BROWN BAND blew a few more minds with a full-fledged, faithful cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a set finale.
The kittenish ARIANA GRANDE may well be the new ANN-MARGRET in thigh-high boots and ubiquitous cat ears, as she continued her scorched earth campaign to conquer the world with a confident performance that began with her smash, “Problem” (without IGGY AZALEA — is there a chill between the two from the MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS?). For ” Break Your Heart Right Back,” she brings on CHILDISH “GAMBINA” (sic) in shorts and no socks for the hip-hop refrain. “Be My Baby” proves she is adept at a straight-ahead pop song, before she dips into her debut for “The Way,” a duet with MAC MILLER, visible on the video screens behind her. ARIANA closes with the current hit, the EDM-flavored ZEDD collaboration, “Break Free,” hitting the high notes and looking preternaturally composed for her age.
USHER seemed to take his finale spot seriously, intent on proving he is still this generation’s answer to JAMES BROWN and MICHAEL JACKSON with a high-energy set that included “OMG,” “You Make Me Wanna” and, taking out his falsetto, the playful “Good Kisser.” He pulled out all his dance movdes for “She Came To Give It To You,” the big band stopping on a dime like the FAMOUS FLAMES. He promised something “to remember” for the VEGAS crowd, bringing on surprise guest CHRIS BROWN, who recently told MTV he could beat USHER in a dance contest, for their latest collaboration, “New Flame.” The discofied “U-Turn” got everybody up on their feet and involved as USHER posed for selfies and directed the crowd in a sing-along before the show closer, his tribute to his fans, “Without You,” a direct acknowledgement of this populist event in a too-fragmented world, leaving the stage at a quarter past midnight to a sea of red and white confetti.
If day one was about superstars like USHER, TAYLOR SWIFT, ALICIA KEYS, COLDPLAY, MOTLEY CRUE and CHRIS BROWN establishing their bona fides, tonight it was relative newcomers like IGGY AZALEA, LORDE, ED SHEERAN, ONE DIRECTION and MEGHAN TRAINOR given the chance to state their case as pop music game-changers.
Befitting their status as veterans (and their upcoming SYCO/COLUMBIA album, “Four”), ONE DIRECTION got the nod to get the festivities started — opening with “Midnight Memories” that belied their rep as a boy band. Given their age, they are more appropriately a young man’s band, and NIALL HORAN on guitar and vocals, insisting, “Same old shit but a different day,” along with the irrepressible shaggy-haired HARRY STYLES and a game LIAM PAYNE, his arm in a sling, give the group plenty of charisma. It doesn’t hurt that every song is an anthem, as the five huddled around a single mic for the acoustic ballad, “Little Things,” to the autobiographical “Story of My Life,” in which each member gets to tell his part of the story. “What Makes You Beautiful” is the kind of songs the little (and not-so-little) girls understand (and sing along to), while “Best Song Ever” lives up to its title.
ED SHEERAN struck up some intensity with just an acoustic guitar, as well as a spirited rap/folk narrative mash-up like “Don’t,” which got everyone clapping and chanting along, “Hey-yo.” “Thinking Out Loud” is a bluesy paean to adolescent romance (“Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?”) that brings to mind a young VAN MORRISON. Then came the first surprise of the night, with SHEERAN starting “Same Love,” then bringing MACKLEMORE to the stage to join him, turning the song into a soulful gospel hymn. He closed with the sing-song optimism of “The A Team” (“Tried to swim and stay afloat”) and the looped hip-hop, whooped JACKO falsetto and dance-hall toasting of “Sing,” which, naturally, the audience did on command.
JOHNNY GALECKI of “The Big Bang Theory” fame gave a knowing fan’s introduction to WEEZER, who cranked out their new single, “Back to the Shack,” with lines like “Turn up the radio/Turn off those stupid singing shows” and “I forgot that disco sucks.” If you expected WEEZER’s neurotic RIVERS CUOMO, he of the checked man-tailored shirts, to have an iHEART meltdown like GREEN DAY’s BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG memorably did a few years ago, you were disappointed. Instead all that vitriol was channeled into sardonic ditties like “Beverly Hills” (“Preppy girls never looked at me/Why should they?/I ain’t nobody”), “Say It Ain’t So” (“Your drug is a heartreaker… My love is a life-taker”), the NIRVANA-esque “Island In The Sun” (from the 2001 self-titled “Green Album”) and arguably their biggest crossover hit, “Buddy Holly,” As to the seeming unlikeliness of the band’s appearance at such a mainstream affair, CUOMO insisted from the stage he was proud “representing alternative rock at the iHEARTRADIO fest” before ending with a completely unironic four-man drum solo to a standing ovation. So there.
In the words of CHRIS PRATT, who introduced him, ERIC CHURCH is a modern-day outlaw, and it turns out the guy has as much to do with country as, say, MOTLEY CRUE, opening with the rock-hard “The Outsiders,” with screaming guitars that would do JUDAS PRIEST proud. He followed with “Creepin’,” a southern delta blues that oozed real menace; a banjo-picking “Give Me Back My Hometown,” whose lyrics echo his fascination with SPRINGSTEEN; and the remarkable “Homeboy,” his touching meditation on adolescence and parenthood which finds three separate meanings for the word within the lyrics. Amd if there was any doubt about where he was coming from, CHURCH closes with a party-hearty “Smoke A Little Smoke.”
From the CHURCH, it was time to go, naturally to LORDE. Her dark songs, like “Glory and Gore,” “Tennis Court” (“Let’s go down to the tennis court/And talk it up, like yeah”), the inclusionary “Team” and the worldwide smash, “Royals,” perhaps the most unlikely Top 40 fare in recent memory. “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies,” she sang.
TRAIN was next, with “Drive By,” one of the band’s perennial Top 10 hits. They followed with the new single, “Angel in Blue Jeans,” and “Hey, Soul Sister,” followed by the radio anthem, “Drops of Jupiter” before closing with a cover of AEROSMITH’s ‘Dream On.”
Then it was time for one of the iHEARTMUSIC fest’s most unusual booking choices, bringing 50 CENT to the stage, who launched a full-on G-UNIT reunion with a non-stop medley of “Watch Me,” “Just A Lil’ Bit,” “Hold On,” “This Is How We Do,” “Electric Storm” and “Ayo Technology” with LLOYD BANKS, YOUNG BUCK, TONY YAYO and KIDD KIDD, who all looked like they were having a good old time together.
MEGHAN TRAINOR then took the stage to sing “Title” before tackling her song-of-the-moment, “All About That Bass.”
IGGY AZALEA then took the stage with attitude in a gold-studded geometric pink, black, lavender and red one-piece short skirt and black boots, performing “Beat Down,” her collaboration with STEVE AOKI, the bouncy “Bounce,” the menacing “Black Widow,” the rapid Jamaican toasting and epic narrative of “Work” and, of course, the irresistible, chart-topping hook of “Fancy.”
PARAMORE followed, with yet another strong, flamboyant female role model and force of nature in HAYLEY WILLIAMS, the girl next door in white leather jacket, sparkly hot pants and sneakers. Their five-song set featured “Still Into You,” “That’s What You Get,” a particularly propulsive “Misery Business” (enlisting an enthusiastic audience member to sing along), the touching childhood meditation and cell-phone-waving, “The Only Exception” and “Ain’t It Fun.” “Don’t go crying to your mama/Cause you’re on your own in the real world,” chants WILLIAMS, after expressing amazement the band’s been together 10 years as a sea of confetti falls down around them.
After a brief LIL’ JON DJ set featuring “Turn Down For What,” and saved for the finale, is probably the biggest star on the planet most people have never heard of, Scottish EDM superstar DJ CALVIN HARRIS, the man behind a massive slew of hits, both as artist and collaborator. His closing set proved his coming-out party for the uninitiated. He started with “Feel So Close,” the thumping bass hooking the crowd from the start. “And there’s no stopping us right now.” From there, he segues into “I Need Your Love,” his collaboration with ELLIE GOULDING. With “Sweet Nothing,” his hook-up with FLORENCE WELCH, he leads the audience into singing along, everyone swept up in the sound and visuals, followed by “Summer,” his latest hit, and a great farewell to the season and the iHEARTRADIO MUSIC FESTIVAL itself. Bringing up U.K. soul singer JOHN NEWMAN to perform their song “Blame,” HARRIS creates the perfect climax to an eclectic evening of entertainment.
In the end, it seemed to make perfect sense. For a festival that was born from terrestrial radio, the ultimate performer turned out to be a disc jockey, although someone COUSIN BRUCIE would never have dreamed of.