If you want to make money on a concert, two elements that rarely fail to cash in are the starry-eyed obsession not seen outside of the ages of 8 and 14 and the comforting glow of nostalgia. Put them both together and you have So Pop, dubbed the biggest 90s festival New Zealand has ever seen.
Last night, Spark Arena in Auckland played host to an almost-capacity crowd of mid-20-to-late-30s year olds smothered in body glitter, studded with butterfly clips and donning dungarees primed for 5 hours of bubblegum pop so sweet the charts NEEDED the garage-revival to bring some bite back.
Creating a completely different 90s aesthetic (Grungy-art-kid-who-listens-to-too-much Elliott-Smith) meant that while Mr. President and Outhere Brothers were playing, I was jammed into my office bathroom lacing up my Docs, wrangling a nose ring and smudging eyeliner.
However, I cannot help but feel that they would’ve suffered a similar fate to Lou Bega and 2 Unlimited whose “setlist” was effectively filling in air time for that-one-song. But dammit that one song went off in a flurry of backing tracks, pleather and gusto befitting a lit Karaoke bar after midnight.
After the parade of one hit wonders, we began to get into artists with a bit more sustainability and/or substance (I use both terms lightly). Eiffel 65 padded what could’ve been a two song set into a fairly enjoyable masterclass in slightly edgy Eurodance. This meant that it maintained the same facile beats but lacked the innuendo laced lyrics that elevated it from trash to kitsch, instead opting for nonsense (I’m Blue da bah de dah ba die) or militant commands (Move your Body!) set to disorientating visuals. It was fine, if only for a history lesson.
Irish girl group B*Witched were up next, marking the first big drawcard and the first in a series of niggles on display throughout the evening. Swapping out their iconic double denim for vaguely matching sparkly outfits, they jollied their way through six songs including a baffling rendition of an Abba medley that only filled in the minutes, the dizzying fun of Rollercoaster and a cutely choreographed rendition of Blame It On The Weatherman. Unfortunately, they were plagued with sound issues throughout their set, which was not helped by the occasionally flat vocals on display.
For the first time in the evening, I questioned whether nostalgia was enough to paper over the cracks of a live performance. This was compounded when the song we were all undeniably here for – the Irish-French fusion number C’est La Vie morphed into Ed Sheran’s limp-wristed warble Galway Girl. It was deeply disappointing and although it was undoubtedly an attempt to show their relevance, it completely went against the yesteryear ethos of So Pop. Riverdancing aside, it was an opportunity lost and a collective stomp on our nostalgic dreams.
Blue – who technically formed in 2000, making them the anomaly of the show are often forgotten in favour of other ballad-heavy boy bands cut from a similar cloth actually from the 90s. Unfortunately for Blue, my memory of their songs rarely extends beyond the intro hooks and choruses, but this wasn't the reason that mildly sexual synchronised dance moves alone couldn't save them.
Three out of the four members of Blue proved that they could still undeniably sing. However, they were hindered by bandmate Anthony Costa whose flat vocals dragged their entire performance down... despite the sound engineers best efforts to turn down his mic. I mean, sure I needed some water after their set, but it doesn't detract from the fact they were technically fair-to-middling.
Unabashed trash-pop Vengaboys were loathed by any serious music critic yet loved by anyone under the age of 14 in the late 90s. On the surface, it's easy to see why – they took the most plastic elements of pop music and hollowed them out to construct songs that were heavy with artifice and sex. It was a style that as a whole, did not contribute much to the development of music. But for those who actually listened to the music, these sentiments completely miss the point of the Vengaboys, who are less about creating ground-breaking pop music and more about creating a party, which they completely succeeded in.
Unlike the acts prior to them, Vengaboys did not mess around with trying to modernise themselves or pretend that they had more hits then they actually do. They gave us completely what we expected – classic school disco bangers set to backing tracks... moments where their dancing trumped their singing and an unapologetic sense of fun. Critically, they may be too cheesy, their costumes too sparkly, their music too up tempo and their dance moves too basic to have either been considered conventionally cool. But their point of difference was that they knew it, didn't care and made it work.
Regardless of whether they are ironic geniuses or geniuses in irony, Vengaboys transported everyone in Spark Arena back to mouthing along the words to Boom Boom Boom, Sha La La La and more alone in their teenage bedrooms with a hairbrush for company. And we loved it. Had the night ended there, it would've been on a high.
However in the words of 90s infomercial queen, winner of NZDWTS (season three) and host for the evening Suzanne Paul “BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE.”
Headliners Aqua are responsible for one of the best examples of top forty Eurodance this side of the millennium. Unlike other efforts, Aquarium's fluffy songs are fun and memorable.
Sure its plastic and kitschy as fuck, but it's so deliberately silly that it's forgivable.
Amidst the shine, squeaky vocals and bad rhyming couplets of Aqua, there's some actual musicality in the mix that sounds like it was borne from Roxette or Whigfield. Listen to Be A Man and tell me you don't hear The Bangle's Eternal Flame running through it. Unlike other examples, Aquarium is an album that actively tries to be varied in its tempo and content. It was also an album 9 year old me loved. So it's quite confronting to admit that their act was something of a mixed bag.
While Aqua possessed the most obvious musicality of any of the acts – largely thanks to the addition of a live band and Lene Nystrøm's vocal chops- they weren't without error.
Despite performing all of their hits for the aforementioned Aquarium, Aqua included several misguided attempts at transforming these upbeat, bubbly numbers into heavy house raves and it was like cramming a round peg into a square hole. This oscillation was disjointed at its best and vibe killing at its worst, causing the night to end with an awkward fizz and fifteen minutes early with Roses Are Red.
So I'm left with a problem.
I, like thousands of others, barely stopped moving for three hours (my friends will tell you that since becoming a reviewer, getting a head nod out of me means it's gig of the year material). My voice was hoarse from knowing full sets word-for-word. I was delighted over and over again by our luminous hostess, who didn't really know what to do half of the time, but was still a laugh.
But is nostalgia and synchronised dance moves enough to paper over the cracks of technical difficulties, baffling remixes and vastly variable degrees of talent within one group?
It's fair to say that the music itself although not brilliant, is danceable and fun. Nostalgia can cover for that and it was undoubtedly a cheesily good time. But technical difficulties and variable talent cannot save the most adept of performances and is ultimately what caused So Pop to deflate.