Songfacts was invited to work the red carpet at a recent radio station concert event. Not exactly our style - we're more about exploring subtle lyrical nuances than about who someone is dating or what they're wearing - but the glitz and glamor of this clambake sure sounded like fun. So off I went to schmooze with the stars and rub shoulders with paparazzi; the serious questions for serious songwriters would go on hold while I spent a day vying for attention like Shamu jumping for fish at Sea World.
(Is) Radio the Sound Salvation?
KISS-FM is Los Angeles' longtime Top-40 station. For many years, Rick Dees held down its morning drive time shift, while these days American Idol host Ryan Seacrest is the man in the morning. Much like many other popular radio stations around the country, KISS-FM has been putting on an annual all-star concert since 1998, with a lineup that basically consists of artists hot at the moment. You can sometimes pinpoint musical trends simply by looking at its various headliners. For instance, *NSYNC headlined in 2000 while Backstreet Boys topped the bill in 2001, which marked the height of the boy band era.
I'm on the List! (Now, what exactly does that mean?)
After much email groveling with the publicist for the show, I was added to the red carpet guest list. At the appointed time, a few hours prior to show time, we media types gathered just outside the stadium and were escorted into the stadium. We were directed to our red carpeted spots, which were marked with small cards bearing the names of our outlets. My spot, for instance, was next to the one for a Hispanic culture magazine. A little way up the line from me was a reporter wearing a hat with a plastic Popsicle on top. (I never did find out what outlet Popsicle girl was from; I'm just glad she never asked me to lick it, as she did with others).
Just as Green Rooms aren't always green, Red Carpets aren't always red. In this case, it was blue.
Just being on the carpet – and in my case, just barely on the carpet's edge – doesn't guarantee VIP press treatment. In fact, I was placed at the very end of the carpet, right before the complimentary Coca-Cola folks and the swag tent. Sadly, in the grand scheme of things, my soda had no fizz.
So, you may well ask, what is the red carpet experience really like? For starters, it's tiring. TV entertainment shows make it appear like non-stop celebrity interview action. Yet much like SportsCenter on ESPN, what you're really seeing is just the highlights. My day at The Home Depot Center (it's a soccer stadium, kids, not Madison Square Garden) in Carson, California (a long way from Beverly Hills, both literally and metaphorically) was mostly spent in the hot sun, surrounded by other tired looking reporters, waiting and hoping various stars and stars-to-be would stay on the blue thread road and make it all the way to the end. Those at the beginning of the line were the big timers: major networks, E! Entertainment and magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin.
The Pecking Order
Make no mistake about it, there is a hierarchy when it comes to celebrity carpeted catwalks, and size (that is, camera and microphone size) does matter. This blue-colored red carpet started with the big guns; the TV cameras of the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox), as well as E! people. When the line petered out, in the form of the barely ruffled material shreds beneath the Songfacts.com paper sign, there was a much more lo-fi presence. Sure, there were a few professional looking microphones, but yours truly came armed with nothing more than a tiny digital recorder. (This kind of gives it a David vs. Goliath feel, doesn't it?). To my immediate left, a reporter was using her iPhone to record the interviews and take pictures. Talk about traveling light.
The greedy underbelly of these events is the swag tent. You won't see it on Entertainment Tonight, but it is quite the sight to behold.
Inside, vendors gather to hand out food, alcohol, apparel and other goodies. I picked up a set of Call of Duty earphones, which are – of course – shaped like bullets. Those of us in the press got first shot at the swag. The room was set up like merchandise booths at an outdoor festival, and manned by one or more product representatives, eager to show off their wares. Offerings ranged from snacks to blue jeans, but my favorite was the candy table. I grabbed a baggie and stuffed it with one of each. It made my little girl happy when I got home.
You also won't see celebrity escorts on TV, but they're there. And no, these "escorts" are not the kind you might see advertised at the back of local weeklies. Instead, these are friendly folks who help celebrities navigate swag-land. They're coached beforehand the same way seat-fillers are prepped prior to award shows. You might think that jobs like "swag escort" would disappear in the recession, but apparently there's still a market for the business of giving away free stuff to famous people.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
Your intrepid reporter spent six hours on the sound byte assembly line, only to end up with four measly interviews to show for it. By the time the sun began to set, I was bluer (meaning sad, and not like junior's lips after a king-zied Icee) than the carpet below my feet. I was forced to watch with envy as Gym Class Heroes made it halfway down the line, only to turn around before making it may way. I also had the surreal experience of watching Justin Bieber cower in front of a photographic onslaught, like a thunderstruck deer caught in the headlights, as he was peppered with rapid fire questions. Note to self: I'd never want to be that painfully famous.
Blinded By The Light
Justin Bieber is an example of an artist that views red carpet walks as necessary evils. But to some, fame is still a novelty. Disney Channel favorite Roshon Fegan's dad tagged along passing out business cards, and Roshon clearly enjoyed the scene, networking and engaging in the interviews. However, for the most part these entertainers looked like dogs being dragged unwillingly to the vet. Their publicists would pull them on leashes, if that were socially acceptable. If you're Fegan, an aspiring singer, this is your big chance to attain respect and acceptance at a legitimate music event. However, if you're already a star like B.o.B, set to go on stage and perform in only a few hours, the red carpet is just another item on your to-do list, to be checked off ASAP. He seemed very distracted and in a hurry.
SWAG, Part 2 (Stars We All Get)
Wango Tango is to music what Comic-Con is for comic books: really a magnet for celebrities of all stripes. Plenty of TV and film stars were at the show in addition to the musicians. The first celebrity to make it all the way to carpet's end - my spot - was Nikki Reed, who plays Rosalie Hale in The Twilight Saga film series. As Reed is not a music star, I had to think fast and say, "I'm with Songfacts, and we're all about songs and songwriting. And so I'm going to ask you a question you probably haven't been asked the whole time, and that is on the Twilight series, what is your favorite song on the soundtrack, and why?"
"We've got a lot of really great artists," Reed responded. "Aqualung are wonderful - this girl, what was her name? I really loved her. Lucy Schwartz? She was fabulous. Obviously Florence + the Machine, they're one of my favorites."
All was going well with this actress interview until Reed put me on the spot. "And who -- who -- who sings 'Flightless Bird'? Come on, you know," Reed asked.
She, of course, assumed I had an encyclopedic memory. I don't. "I don't know," I answered, stupidly. "You do know," Reed insisted, "You have to know."
If only Spotify had a mental app, I could have responded, Oh, we all know that's an Iron & Wine song. "I don't know that answer, I'm sorry," I stated, sheepishly. Next.
The next star to do the carpet shuffle is Fegan, star of Disney's Shake It Up! and a 6th place finisher on the 14th season of Dancing with the Stars. Fagan is, of course, an aspiring singer, as well as a successful actor, which leads me to a different tactic.
The Seacrest-level red carpet interviews you see on E! are usually done by taking the celebs to a little nook where the sound, lighting and climate are under control. Those of us behind the velvet rope don't have that luxury, so it ends up sounding like an awkward conversation at a loud party. Here's the audio of Nikki and Roshon.
Songfacts: "Say you're at a party and people are singing karaoke, what are your go-to songs if you want to really impress people?"
Roshon: "If I have to sing or something?"
Roshon: "You gotta bust out some Michael Jackson. You don't lose the Michael Jackson. See, the problem with Karaoke is, the songs might not have the same effect if the person singing it is not good. You know what I mean? So I think you can never lose with a Michael Jackson song because everyone's going to sing the song on their own, so you're not going to hear yourself anyways. So hit songs like that, any MJ, Chris Brown songs are great to sing. I love turning up the music, I love all his joints. Anybody doing it big, man, I'll put on and make sure that everybody loves it."
Songfacts: "And then if you're not doing well and you're not killing, will you turn to your Dancing with the Stars dance moves in a pinch?"
Roshon: "I might. I might have to bust a waltz out if nothing else is working. I think that's gonna happen."
Talking with TV and movie stars about music was a little like discussing existentialism with your little brother. You can only go so deep. Unlike songwriter interviews, like the kind of conversations I normally find myself having, these brief 'what's on your iPod' interactions were as unsatisfying as a meal made up of candy from the swag tent.
Hit Them With My Best Shot
With the big name artists, the little guys (like me) are forced to beg and plead with publicist sidekicks. As I was waiting for the rapper K'naan to come down the line, I noticed his publicist was wearing a The Hold Steady shirt. I dearly love that band, and told him so. He smiled. I think that little touch of commonality earned me the one question – "I promise! Only one question" – I was able to squeeze out of K'naan. You might say I was able to briefly hold K'naan steady, before he was gone for good.
With my brief audience with K'naan, I asked him about "Wavin' Flag," one he wrote that was chosen as Coca-Cola's promotional anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
"Can you just tell me just a little bit about the inspiration for that song?" I asked as quickly as I could. "Honestly, I have no idea," K'naan replied. "Sometimes it's hard to track what you're feeling and why you feel. I was writing in New York and I was in a room by myself, and then at some point I took a walk. And it rained, and the after-rain scent had made me feel something." Maybe it was the extremely hot weather that caused me to respond with, "How cool is that?" I was obviously fantasizing about rainfall "Really cool," countered K'naan the rain man. "You never really know where inspiration comes from." And then he was off to grab swag.
Finally, after swearing on my mother's grave, or something like that, B.o.B came by and I got one question for him. I immediately thought of "Airplanes," which also features the lovely Hayley Williams of Paramore.
"So how does that come together?" I asked. How did that collaboration come about?"
"I remember I was telling Atlantic [Records], "I want to work with Paramore, I've gotta work with Paramore, I have to do a song." B.o.B recalls. He describes the experience of collaborating with Williams as something where "the chemistry of the art form really created something just phenomenal."
And with that, like an airplane in the night sky, B.o.B. was gone.
It's only Rock & Roll, but I like it
Shortly thereafter, this reporter's rejection had become too strong to carry on. Although I didn't have a ticket to the show, I tried my luck at getting into the venue. After a few Jedi mind tricks, I was in watching Gym Class Heroes, Maroon 5, and the always-crazy Nicki Minaj. I'd escaped! Yet all the while I was AWOL from the press area, however, I lived in fear of being called on the carpet. Ah, but that never happened. I'm thinking that the next time I agree to interview stars, I'll wait until I have my own late night talk show where I can sit behind a big desk and call the shots.
August 28, 2012