Live: Pepsi Throws A Birthday Party For Michael Jackson; He’s Unable to Attend


Bad 25: Ne-Yo, Melanie Fiona, Swizz Beatz
Gotham Hall
Wednesday, August 29

Better than: an easy hair-burning joke.

“You just don’t do a Michael song—you try and do the best you can.” So said Ne-Yo, dabbing at his forehead, having sweated through his “Smooth Criminal” costume. On screens behind him, Michael spun and stopped on pointed toes, a smile and a wink, leaning so far forward you thought his nose and heels would somehow both touch the ground. Here and now stood Ne-Yo, effort running down his face and shirt and pooling around his back; his red shirt stained ombre. He’d just sung three songs off of Bad—tracks 10, 8 and a brisk version of 2—in a performance completely reminiscent of Tupac’s hologram. He continued his thoughts on Michael Jac-karaoke, saying, “You attempt and pray it works,” before beginning the EDM portion of his own catalog.

It’s impossible to review a Michael Jackson tribute without reconsidering his legacy for the umpteenth time. Ne-Yo said, midway through his set, “Instead of mourning his death, I feel like we should celebrate his life.” It’s an unsurprising idea, as that’s exactly what everyone has done for the past three years. We have celebrated his music without mourning its loss; we have ignored what made it great. R&B has lost its soul and moved into fist-pumping, ear-banging Ibiza-zones; concerts are foam parties, and the soundtrack is fluff. It’s of-the-moment and for-the-weekend, apocalyptic devil-may-care shit. Ne-Yo, for his part, has contributed to songs with Vegas mainstays like Calvin Harris, AfroJack and Pitbull, as popular as they are meaningless. A circle of bros fist-pumped, surrounding guys whose dance moves had been cribbed from Jersey Shore first-runs and DJ Skribble DVDs, where it always looks like they’re going to start breakdancing but don’t quite have the nerve.

Growing old is tough: the new stuff is never as good, the kids can never get off your lawn quick enough. But there’s something especially sad about watching Ne-Yo turn his back on Michael Jackson after drinking David Guetta’s snake oil. (The same goes for Usher and Chris Brown, though a lot is sad about Chris Brown.) Ne-Yo was the prodigal son, his voice brought to him down the mountain and through the gates of Neverland. “So Sick” was Michael’s “She’s Out of My Life” for a new generation; his giddy-kneed “Because of You” an updated “Rock With You.” He never had the dance moves, but radios and iPods freed the imagination.

Ne-Yo’s performance was fine, but on a night celebrating Michael Jackson, it just felt a bit of a whiplash to go from great to Bad to worst, to end the night wondering where the future would take us. Maybe these worries aren’t widely felt, but they’re still very real. Last night, Ne-Yo said something to the effect of what he had already told Angie Martinez earlier this month: “I know where I came from. I know that R&B is where it started at for me. When this new album comes out, it will shut the mouths of everybody who feels like I have crossed over.”

Critical bias: Kids in my elementary school class loved Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson. I didn’t appreciate their greatness until I was older.

Overheard: “Michael Jackson is being mentioned here about as much as Mitt Romney is at the RNC, about once every sixteen minutes.”

Overheard II: “So sexy tonight! Here we go, here we go, sing it with me now! A one-two, a one- two! He’s with us tonight!”—DJ Cassidy, wearing a straw hat and leather jacket, and yelling over “Rock With You.”

Random note dump: A must-see in person, Melanie Fiona looked every bit the part of Tina Turner, her hair flipping, her hips thrusting, her mouth curled out. So tiny onstage, her voice so big. The man next to me stopped typing on his BlackBerry, raising his eyebrows to say, amazed, “That girl can sang!” While doing her 1990s wallpeeler “It Kills Me,” she sung with sweat and fingernails, pleading eyes and lipstick. “Dirty Diana,” therefore, was a perfect choice for her grimy, brassy voice; “Bad,” unfortunately, was too delicate.

Set lists:
Melanie Fiona:
Watch Me Work
Give It To Me Right / Time of the Season
Fool For You
Wrong Side of a Love Song
It Kills Me
This Time
Change the Record
Dirty Diana

Because of You
Sexy Love
One in a Million
So Sick
Lazy Love
Champagne Life
Miss Independent

Smooth Criminal
I Just Can’t Stop Loving You (with RaVaughn Brown)
The Way You Make Me Feel
Burning Up
Let Me Love You
Let’s Go
Give Me Everything