By Rebecca Bulnes
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By S. Pajot, Liz Tracy, Kat Bein, & Sean Levisman
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The silhouette of a go-go dancer shimmies above the broad staircase that leads to Billboardlive. Her ponytail flips as she bends, grabs her ankles, and jutts her posterior toward the promoters, producers, politicians, journalists, and stars waiting for their names to be checked off at the velvet rope below. So the shadow of history is cast across the shiny state-of-the-art sound and recording equipment inside South Beach's newest venue, the "flagship home" ofBillboard magazine.
Go-go dancing got its start one night at the Whiskyin Los Angeles, when the club's secretary subbed for the DJ. Miniskirted and white-booted, the sweet young thing stood up in the booth and started to swing. At the grand opening of Billboardlive 40 years later, a nubile dancer tugs self-consciously at her fuzzy bikini top while grinding to the crystal-clear sound of superstar DJs Perry Farrell and Jellybean Benitez. Three other synthetically enhanced go-go girls shout up to her, demanding a turn.
Now that Sixties Sunset Boulevard-style spontaneity is ruthlessly mined, mixed, and sold by the million units, this is what the founders of Billboard Live International call "interactive entertainment programming developed and produced for distribution via traditional and digital media." In other words smile for the camera; your life force is selling our music.
But who wants to have fun if it's not being broadcast?
Certainly not the two women rolling around on a sofa under the glare of video camera lights in the third-floor VIP. Nor the hundreds rushing the red velvet on the first floor, where a tastefully suited muscleman calmly informs his boss: "This is totally out of control." Not even the VVVIPs inside the inner sanctum just above the stage: No mere mortal may cross that threshold, but as with the opera boxes reserved for royalty, everybody can see who is sitting inside.
No one is more prominently displayed than Miami's most important person, Emilio Estefan, Jr. Following a perfunctory thank you to Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, a surprise tribute celebrates "a man who literally came to this country with nothing." Then, hovering in the air, Rosie O'Donnell reminds us in a stern videotaped statement reminiscent of a hostage message (her arm is still bandaged on the tape; maybe it hurts) that her neighbor is a "hard worker." A video replays Estefan's rags-to-crossover story, then the great man stands onstage for the unveiling of a poster of his face on a Billboard cover.
History gets scrambled for me every time I hear the Estefan hagiography. All that talk about hard work and immigrant triumph is so nineteenth century. If we must have an official praise song for Emilio, let's sing one in tune with the digital age: Emilio Estefan, Jr., shrewd and hungry as a shark, secured the biggest budgets and best recording quality ever afforded Latin music, setting a precedent that benefits every artist singing in Spanish. Putting Billboardlive in Miami -- whose first-class facilities finally do justice to featured acts as diverse as Celia Cruz and Los Rabanes -- is just the latest evidence of that accomplishment.
Go-go dancers and Horatio Alger storiesare not the only historical anachronisms served up like so many chilled cosmos at the opening of 1500 Ocean Drive. "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops)" -- the number one single by R&B newcomer Blu Cantrell -- sets hip-hop breaks to Cab Calloway swing and Sarah Vaughan vocals to bling-bling banter. The result is irresistible, but Cantrell's elegant jazz phrasing reveals the threadbare banality of the contemporary rap lexicon even more starkly than the "where-the-party-at" boasts of her peers.
Some reviewers find the song's get-your-cheatin'-man-in-his-pocketbook theme offensive; I'm more disappointed by the clumsy rhyme scheme. After all, Calloway's classic "Minnie the Moocher" is a variation on the same gold-diggin' theme, but the lyric is delightful. In that case the last line from "Minnie" applies to both songs: "She was just a young girl but they done her wrong." At a time when virtuoso production takes sonic form to new heights, maybe it just makes sense that lyrical content should suffer. Certainly Dallas Austin did better as the producer than he did as the songwriter of "Oops." Recovering from her all-out performance in Billboardlive's deluxe penthouse dressing room, the songstress has no patience for such philosophizing. Staring at me through her icy-blue contacts, Cantrell says wearily: "Some things you just can't explain."
Whatever Cantrell's jazz revival might mean for the future of R&B, her appearance at Billboardlive hints at the value the venue might add to our musical community. Unlike the other performers on the bill who all have strong Miami associations, and even though some tracks on So Blu were recorded or mixed in town, the Rhode Island native who broke out of Atlanta came to Miami Saturday specifically for the opportunity to perform at Billboardlive. That's interactive entertainment!
The most surprising response I've had to last week's cover story, "Los Producers," has been massive requests by aspiring artists/producers/songwriters for contact information for Emilio Estefan or Kike Santander. This information is in the phone book, kids, but if your fingers don't feel like walking, you can reach Estefan Enterprises at 305-695-7000 or Moon Red Music (Santander's production company) at 305-867-0302. Good luck!