Justin Bieber stood on a platform riser, 50 feet above the field at the StubHub Center during Wango Tango on Saturday night. He looked utterly scared and alone.
While the violin lines of “Where Are U Now” keened behind him, his face was slick with sweat. Bieber, who has one of the loveliest male voices in pop, had sung this set like he'd just run up a flight of stairs -- wildly missing notes, gulping air into his headset microphone, staring hard at some spot in the middle distance to stay level.
“I need you / you / you / you / you,” he sang to fans, matching a glitched-up sample in his song’s backing track. “I need you the most.”
On Saturday in Carson, seemingly everyone on that stage did.
Even setting aside Bieber’s particular troubles (and roasts) of late, it’s a different world for top-40 pop stars today. Radio stations, like Wango Tango host KIIS-FM (102.7), used to set the rules of contemporary pop engagement. The stations still wield massive influence; KIIS, home to Ryan Seacrest’s morning show, is routinely measured as the area’s most popular. For breaking a pop single, nothing matches its reach and potency.
But at Wango Tango, it was clear that the balance of power had shifted from stations deciding what fans would like to fans finding acts online and demanding them from radio. It’s a tectonic shift, and one Wango Tango must now follow.
This year’s festival had some unexpected edge (dare we say Coachella crossover?) in its bill. Headlined by the volatile (for KIIS, anyway) Kanye West, the lineup also sported EDM veterans Calvin Harris and David Guetta, along with the big-voiced pop savant Sia and a few singles-focused acts like the fantastic, saucy pop group Fifth Harmony, Ne-Yo and Meghan Trainor.
Like at hipper festivals these days, the EDM acts were best at riling up the young Wango crowd. Although Harris and Guetta don’t sing onstage, they epitomize the producer-as-superstar trend. When they start mixing a track like Guetta’s “Titanium” or Harris’ “Blame,” they get the same reception as a ‘70s guitar god winding up for a solo.
Nick Jonas, the youngest Jonas brother and first to find traction as a solo artist, has transitioned out of Disney pop into songs befitting his newly ripped body. “Chains” and “Jealous” are more akin to the spooky R&B of the Weeknd than JoBros fans might have expected. Who knows if Nick can turn that into a credible late-night seducer, but to judge by the moms howling at his shirtless gyrations at Wango Tango, it’s working.
Singer and pro songwriter Sia might have been responsible for more hits than anyone else onstage Saturday night, but she hates performing live and keeping up a public profile. On the rare occasions she does, she hides behind a cartoonishly large blond wig.
She played only a few songs Saturday, with a pre-recorded piano track accompanying huge hits like “Chandelier.” But fans dug it. In a market of fickle teen tastes, being subtly rejected by the artist compelled them to watch her.
The same went for West, whose testy relationship with fame, fans and his own turbulent creative mind needs no recap here. Despite the young and fresh-scrubbed pop fan base at Wango, West pulled no punches in his set. He led off with the noise stomp of “Black Skinhead,” followed by his remix of Chief Keef’s bilious hit “I Don’t Like” and his eerie posse-cut track “Mercy.”
Each of those singles helped to define the current edge between hip-hop’s dark moods and pop music’s gloss and immediacy, and they were as bold of choices as one can probably make at Wango Tango. West played young-skewing hits like “Stronger” as well, and for a guy with a reputation of blowing up every big stage he touches, it was reminder that he can also be a consummate entertainer as well.
But it was Bieber who truly defined the night -- a talented teen megastar, now unsure of his audience as he wrestles with the imp of the perverse. “Where Are U Now,” written with Skrillex and Diplo in their Jack U project, is a great song. But Bieber didn’t quite look up to the job of performing it Saturday. Where will pop radio be now that he needs it most?