Audiences are tough. They are demanding and come armed with expectations. They demand to be entertained or informed or enlightened or, in some cases, all three. Meeting those expectations is tough, and maintaining them is nearly impossible.
Whether it's a community theater company trying to generate interest in its umpteenth staging of Grease or a well-known rock act selling the same set of hits tour after nostalgic tour, the challenge, and responsibility, of getting that audience buy-in is a constant. What's less important is how it is done.
The hip-hop pop act Black Eyed Peas reminded me of this.
On Sunday, the quartet was asked to perform in nearly impossible conditions. The featured act at the Super Bowl halftime show, the group needed to establish itself not only within the confines of a well-packed stadium, but also with the millions of people tuning in on television.
Musically, the performance was a fiasco. It was also a complete success.
What the Peas understood was that its chant-along songs were never going to be enough to carry the crowd. It's not the right kind of music -- a little light on melody -- and the group's technical chops are sketchy at best. But the Peas know that. They understand their place in the universe. That group's job is not performing music. It's to present a musical performance.
The difference is that while music was an essential element of the Peas performance, it wasn't necessarily what engaged the audience. What hooked people -- myself included -- was the intriguing staging, the surprise appearances by Slash and Usher (James Brown would have loved that) and the carefully contrived charisma of the four members of the group.
They understood that for 10 minutes, they would be the center of the music universe, and that's no place for understated.
Could the performance have been better? Certainly. Musically it could have, and should have, been stronger. As successful as it was, it was far from perfect.
What's interesting to consider is how inappropriate that carefully constructed performance could have been under different circumstances.
For instance, had the Peas played James Brown Arena (that would be a coup), the legion of LED'ed dancers would seem preposterous. It would also leave little room for an audience -- an important component. Likewise, acts that regularly play club dates in and around Augusta -- even those doing national tours -- would have gotten lost out there on the 50-yard line.
It's important for an act to understand its place in the world, to understand its audience and to deliver accordingly. Play a club and keep it intimate, embrace a certain sense of subtlety. Play the Super Bowl and there's no such thing as overstated.
That being said, I still wish the Black Eyed Peas could have hadda a feeling in key.