Something I would never have envisioned myself saying: I paid money to spend my 4th of July with the Jonas Brothers and Glenn Beck.
Unfortunately, this travesty has now come to pass — and it wasn’t all that bad.
The annual Stadium of Fire celebration at BYU is the very definition of harmless, Mormon-approved and, by extension, bland popular music, mixed with a extra-heavy dose of flag-waving, jet-flying, externally displayed patriotism. The show always leans hard on big dramatic gestures and the same 10 “America” songs they’ve undoubtedly been using since at least the mid-1980s. (Big props to the SOF crew for resisting the temptation of Neil Diamond’s awfully cliched “America” during the fireworks montage. Nice show of restraint.) With these criteria in mind, I dare you to find me a more perfect match for the event than the offense-free pop of the Jonas Brothers and the waterworks and political melodrama of borderline psycho Glenn Beck. Throw in a Mormon country group, lots of American flags of varying sizes, a couple F-16 flyovers and a huge fireworks show that probably ripped its own hole in the ozone layer and you’ve got one rip-roaring 4th of July bash — or at least as ripping and/or roaring as such an event can get when hosted by a conservative pundit, played by prepubescent teenagers and attended by middle-aged Mormons and their preteen daughters.
Before we launch into the meat of the evening, just remember that I braved all this for you, dear readers. All to be your eyes and ears in that strange cultural event. And also because I was bored. But mostly for you.
ANYWAY, the evening began with the usual business of presenting the colors, singing the national anthem multiple times, watching young girls in surprisingly revealing (by BYU standards) uniforms dance around a football field in complex formations with colorful flags. You know, the usual. Nothing super spectacular. That was until the Music Man showed up.
Glenn Beck’s first appearance on-stage came in characteristically excruciating fashion: with full choir in tow, Beck ambled up to the mic sporting a red bowtie and a straw hat, then proceeded to do some poorly received Music Man-related shtick with the choir and really accomplished little except making me want to punch him in the face more than usual. Let’s be honest: I loathe the man more than is probably necessary for an individual to loathe a television personality — and that’s when he’s wearing regular clothes. His ridiculous outfit and accompanying smarm only served to aggravate my hate for the person he chooses to be. Fortunately for all involved, Beck’s words were scripted and relatively brief, a smart move on BYU’s part because you never know what asinine things will escape that man’s mouth when given a microphone. Even more fortunately, Beck was dressed as a regular person when he reappeared for his second monologue, not like Bozo the Clown. Small victories, people. Small victories.
To be honest, the whole ramp-up of the evening was fairly blase. Utah-based country group SHeDAISY played a six-song set and no one really cared. Sure, no one’s really cared about SHeDAISY for 10 years or so, but the sentiment was incredibly apparent in the apathetic silence of the crowd. They were all there for one reason and everyone knew it. They’d painted it on their homemade t-shirts, on their posterboard marriage proposals, on their acne-riddled faces and who knows where else. (There is undoubtedly some kind of Jonas Brothers graffiti, freshly fashioned with a glitter gel pen, in a Dairy Queen bathroom somewhere in Provo at this very moment.) Some might have thought this was Stadium of Fire, but let’s be honest: it was, first and foremost, a Jonas Brothers concert with fireworks.
I think I became 50% deaf when the teenage girl next to me got her first glimpse of Joe Jonas stepping onto the stage, her shrieks of delight completely melting my right eardrum. (To be fair, she did warn me of this possibility before the show.) Unfortunately for me, that was only the beginning of the screamfest that is a Jonas Brothers concert. As Nick and Kevin (though it appears the latter is significantly less popular for some reason) subsequently appeared and the boys launched into the up-tempo “Paranoid,” the noise level grew to the point where I lost my other eardrum and my face began to melt like the Nazi at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The 1o-year-old girl two rows behind me must be the world record holder for greatest lung capacity in the preteen girl division. I was betting that she would lose her voice after a few songs, but I was sorely mistaken. She screamed every single lyric for the full 55-minute set. It was both impressive and ear-splitting.
You might wonder why I am taking such pains to describe the nature of JoBros fans, and I promise you there is a point. The entire conflict over the brothers — Are they good? Do they suck? Is Joe’s voice too whiny? Is everyone too cynical to appreciate solid pop music? — should, in theory, be able to reach some kind of resolution in their live show. There is no greater measure of musicianship than live performance. Anyone can make something sound decent with enough takes in the studio, but the replication of that sound on-stage is the true test of a band’s mettle.
I wish I could say whether or not the JoBros passed that test, but I can’t. For me to say that the group delivered on Saturday night would require me to also be able to say that I actually heard a significant portion of the performance. In all reality, I maybe heard 40% JoBros, 60% screaming girls. Perhaps this is why there has been no definitive answer to the Jonas debate by fair-minded individuals: no one knows what they actually sound like live.
To analyze the situation as best as possible given the circumstances, the following seems to be true: a) the JoBros are very good at what they do, b) that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s much intrinsic value to what they do, c) Joe Jonas’ nasal croon is an aphrodisiac to young girls, d) no one knows what’s going through Kevin Jonas’ mind 98% of the time, and e) Nick Jonas’ prepubescent yelp sounds like a dying chihuahua. To be honest, there are worse things in the world than the Jonas Brothers. If my hypothetical daughters wanted to listen to the JoBros, I would prefer that to most of the other crap on Top 40 radio these days. No, they’re not Radiohead — and they’re not supposed to be. They’re teenage heartthrobs who actually (semi-)play their own instruments and write their own deceptively catchy and melodic pop songs. And that’s okay: America doesn’t need the Jonas Brothers to be anything more or less than the “It” boys of the moment.
The one thing that is most refreshing about the brothers is how unassuming they come off. You know they don’t believe they’re making “important” music; you know they realize all their records are bought exclusively by ravenous 10-year-old girls; you know they’re just a couple kids who wrote some catchy melodies, lucked into a sweet gig and fully intend to enjoy the ride. These things are okay. In a strange way, they actually represent the American dream. Sure, the Jonases aren’t timeless bulwarks of originality or ingenuity (they’re actually quite formulaic), but they represent a highly-stylized version of the familiar “regular guy(s) make good” narrative that this country lives for. If American popular culture needs a teen idol for every generation, I’m fine with the Jonas Brothers winning this round. At least they’re not Aaron Carter.
Steve Pierce is co-founder and editor of Rhombus. He cheered loudly for Kevin Jonas, mostly because he feels the oldest Jonas gets the raw end of the deal from those heartless 10-year-old girls.