“I love you,” gasped Johnny O, blue button-up untucked, dance moves at 80 percent, still five minutes from getting around to his hit “Fantasy Girl.” “I miss you.” Can you blame him? Freestyle, the largely Puerto Rican hybrid of electro and r&b that suffused New York radio in the late ’80s,hasn’t yet enjoyed its modern revival, so more than a dozen of the genre’s 12-inch wonders—often mere teens at the time, often pushing 40 and beyond now—lined up for their literal 15 minutes at MSG, each sporting hits that eclipsed their careers. Which is a shame, because this dense revue proved that the most local of New York musics remains, for the most part, remarkably well preserved.
There was George Lamond, unfailingly pretty, exulting through “Where Does That Leave Love.” Cynthia updated “Endless Night” from teen romp to adult burn. Lisa Lisa took that concept maybe too seriously, turning her indelible dancefloor hits into lite-jazz excursions, but redeeming herself with a shimmering “All Cried Out.” Closing it a cappella, she demonstrated what sometimes got lost amid the genre’s thick digital texture: Excellent singers lurked here, without the benefit of a trad soul music legacy to nurture them. And so they danced—the brutal TKA, the perilously polished Cover Girls, the regal Shannon. Even hunk of cheese Stevie B, known most widely for the toothless ballad “Because I Love You,” closed the show with genre avatar “Spring Love.” Synthetic in texture, emo in posture, with just a hint of muscle, the song suggests the New Romantics casting their lot with outer-borough Puerto Ricans and Italians.
Two decades on, freestyle remains fixed, awaiting reappraisal. As singer and WKTU jock Judy Torres, resplendent in black sequins, closed with her current hit—a cover of Journey’s “Faithfully” that owes more to trance’s thump than freestyle’s sharp jabs—response was muted, a collective head scratch for a crowd, onstage and off, uncertain how to move on.