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Getting Martinized

Your friends and neighbors have caught Ricky fever. Are you next?

So this is how the pop music of the Nineties ends -- not with the angst and intellect of the grunge sound that most reviewers say defined the decade, but with a gloriously vapid hunkaroo who's a lock for the gold medal if ass-waving is ever made an Olympic sport. Yeah, Rage Against the Machine had the best-selling album in America when Ricky Martin hit town on November 28, but Rage barely filled the mid-sized Denver Coliseum four days earlier, while the Rickster absolutely jammed the much larger Pepsi Center with a rainbow coalition of the young and the old, the straight and the gay, the blandly Caucasian and the ethnically diverse. On today's entertainment landscape, silliness sells, and by that standard, Martin is (apologies to James Cameron) the king of the world!

The Pepsi Center was the right place for this spectacle -- a gargantuan complex (it's the DIA of arenas) highlighted by several mini-mountain ranges lining the main parking lot, a bizarre sculpture of, among other things, an upside-down basketball player who looks as if he's trying to commit suicide by diving into the sprawling lobby's tiled floor, and concession-area walls lined with one immense advertisement after another. The selling continues in the performance zone with plenty of "branding" by sponsors such as the Denver Post, and Martin's handlers quickly got into the spirit, projecting commercials for (natch) Pepsi, Ford, and Ricky's favorite cologne on the white curtain stretched around the curved-stage setup as soon as the lights were lowered. Also being pimped was Jessica Simpson, the latest signee of Columbia Records, Martin's label, who opened the show with about twenty minutes of karaoke renditions from her newly issued disc, with backing provided by the usual well-muscled dancers. A Barbie blonde whose endowments were almost contained by a negligee-esque top, Simpson seemed like a cross between the first woman to die in a slasher flick and a third-rate Mariah Carey: Mariah Scary, if you will. But though her music would have to improve radically to achieve mediocrity, she was smart enough to mention Martin's impending arrival every chance she got -- and the largely female throng responded to his name as promptly as Pavlov's dog. Woof, woof.

Shortly thereafter, a burlap bag in the rafters caught fire, sending a small shower of embers flickering down on the folks in the $98 seats; the first ten rows were briefly evacuated, and the beginning of the concert was delayed for over half an hour. But that's where the spontaneity ended and the surreality began. Even many of those who'd seen Martin's network TV special two days before soon found themselves slack-jawed.

First up was a film in which Ricky rose from bed, put on his sexiest duds and emerged onto the street, where he was immediately swarmed by (you guessed it) paparazzi. Before you could say "Don't go into that tunnel, Princess Di," Martin was racing across the city in a vintage Mustang convertible with the media leeches hot on his shapely tail -- a pursuit that ended when he crashed into a fire hydrant. Then, as water from the hydrant ejaculated suggestively onto the camera lens, the curtains parted and a replica of the Mustang rose through the floor of the stage with Ricky standing on its hood shaking his black-leather-swaddled moneymaker to the blaring strains of "Livin' la Vida Loca." At around the same time, a woman wearing a white-fringed bikini popped into view (had she been in the trunk?) and jiggled every bit of flesh she owned within mere feet of our favorite Martin. But Ricky didn't even seem to notice. He was very much in his own world, unself-consciously doing the exact same hand gestures and dance moves that he used in the "La Vida Loca" video even as he offered up alternately coy and joyous looks that told his fans he was just as turned on by his boyish desirability as they were. This was hardly the only bit of evidence his turn provided to those whispering about his sexual preferences; throughout the evening, Martin remained at arm's length from any and all of the voluptuous women who contributed to his act, getting personal only with the poles that peppered the multilevel set. (Watch Ricky slide up and down, up and down.) But in the end, ambiguity ruled: The only person Martin seemed eager to have sex with was himself.

If he was attracted to himself for his mind, his love must have been blind; every time he spoke between songs, the audience's collective IQ dropped a couple of notches. At one point, he said that the concert was a step toward achieving the cultural union of the Americas. Such polite but endearing dopiness, not his gyrating pelvis, is the real legacy he shares with Elvis Presley; the innocence and naivete he projects take the edge off his egomania, as does his pathological eagerness to please. Starting off with his signature song -- the one comedian Chris Rock, in his HBO special Bigger and Blacker, said was in danger of becoming "the Puerto Rican 'Whoomp! (There It Is)'" -- was a risk, especially considering the comparable strengths (or lack thereof) demonstrated by "Spanish Eyes," "Shake Your Bon-Bon" and the rest of the material on this year's Ricky Martin, his English-language debut. But Martin's tireless exhibitionism kept the show from flagging even when he performed "Mara" and other Spanish-language songs that perhaps two-thirds of the attendees had never heard. No stage move was too corny or melodramatic for him, nor was any theatrical cliche too hackneyed to grasp to his bosom -- and by refusing to censor himself, he wound up wowing those for whom the old standbys still work and cracking up anyone accustomed to performers less willing to go several steps over the line.

Included in the hilarity:

Martin described the over-weening power ballad "I Am Made of You" as "like having a one-to-one conversation with God." As it neared its conclusion, a mammoth, saucer-like rig with a hole at its center was lowered over him, and after stepping onto it and beginning a slow ascent toward the roof, he held a Jesus-meets-Neil Diamond pose (head thrown back, arms extended at his sides) for a good thirty seconds. Even though he wound up in the same place where the fire had flared up, he didn't burst into flames like Michael Jackson, another onetime Pepsi plugger.

In part two of the opening film, Martin, with reporters and camera vultures still in pursuit, made his way into a nightclub, where a suave vocalist wearing a black fedora was holding court. When Ricky tried to discover just who this fabulous talent was, the man in the spotlight revealed himself to be -- Ricky! Seconds later, all of Martin's male dancers arrived wearing similar black fedoras, revealing themselves one by one until the real star grabbed the microphone by the throat again. The movie ended later in the show, when an orgasmic burst of ectoplasm gave birth to a whole slew of Ricky Martin star children. Look what you've wrought, Arthur C. Clarke.

During a love-song duet with the band's female vocalist, Martin never once went near her. The closest the two of them came was toward the conclusion, when he was descending down one of the set's poles and she was ascending; they reached toward each other across the central video screen, with her seeming much more determined to reach him than he was to get to her.

Twice during the concert, Martin divided the arena in half for audience-participation segments. In the first, which he said was intended to be a "healthy competition," he convinced his boosters to alternately whip their arms from side to side over their heads, repeat the movement down low, rub their hands together in exaggerated fashion, and massage their tummies. Later, he asked his followers to join him in shaking their hips, but only after first pointing to his sides with a look of surprise and amusement on his face. He insisted that folks of every age could keep up with his caboose-wagging as long as "you trust your heart and your soul."

For an encore, Martin emerged from beneath the stage sitting on a sofa, where he crooned the lachrymose "She's All I Ever Had" while stretching out his bare feet. During the instrumental passages of the song, he slowly moved his head from one side of the arena to the other while squinting his eyes and pouting dramatically, to make sure that no section failed to feel the heat of his smoldering gaze.

All of this, however, was mere prelude to the concluding version of "The Cup of Life," the song that Martin performed on this year's Grammy Awards telecast, thereby infecting the States with a case of Ricky-mania. As part of the extravaganza, acrobats on elastic tethers flipped and spun on either side of the stage while two more dudes suspended by cables danced on the main video screen. They were still going strong when Martin was suddenly lifted above ground level atop (you had to figure) a tremendous cylindrical erection that kept getting bigger and bigger.

Sure, it was ridiculous, but the little girls understood -- one young woman held a sign that read, "It's my birthday, Ricky, please hug me!"; her companion's placard declared, "Ricky, you're scrumptious!" -- and so did pretty much everyone else. Despite Martin's pretensions toward universal oneness, the resulting sound and fury signified nothing, which no doubt would have frosted the Rage Against the Machine crowd. But as our calendrical odometer gets ready to roll over, most people prefer style, not substance, and Ricky's got plenty of it. Geopolitical discourse is fine, but it can't compare to a really nice butt.

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