The joy of watching concerts on morning television.

The joy of watching concerts on morning television.

The joy of watching concerts on morning television.

Arts has moved! You can find new stories here.
What you're watching.
Aug. 12 2011 8:37 PM

Eating a Bagel, Humming Rihanna

The joy of watching concerts on morning television.

1_123125_122958_2279924_2300816_110812_tv_katyperry_tn
Katy Perry performs on Today

Every Friday in the summer in the middle of Manhattan, many thousands of tourists wake before dawn, whoosh down to their hotel lobbies, and walk—perhaps at their usual speed, which is easily surpassed by a 7-month-old child cruising down a coffee table—to go see live music outside. NBC's Today, with sponsor Toyota, hosts acts in Rockefeller Plaza; ABC's Good Morning America sets a lot of Burger King logos bubbling around a venue in Central Park; CBS's Early Show is watched by no one, so we will never know if, like the other two shows, it offers concert performances giving off odd pops of glossy Americana, percolating desire with the coffee at 8:30 in the morning.

Even the dullest of these shows—even the most jet-lagged artists performing their most tuneless would-be hits—reaches a pop-cultural sweet spot. This morning, for instance, both Today and GMA were relatively lackluster. On the former, the Zac Brown Band, a country act, sang about loving fried chicken, cold beer, and mom, in that order; it was nothing special, but the sing-along aspect—the dimension of the home viewer's getting some face time with the people who sing along to drive-time radio with him—carried the day. On the latter, a medley of American Idol contestants warbled away at will—and encouraged the viewer to reflect on the ups and downs of American idol worship.

The folks in the crowd, with their coordinated outfits and posterboard messages, bring a measure of folk-culture authenticity, and they can radiate the beatitude of pilgrims, and it's always cheering to see a mass of sailors on shore leave occupying the good seats in their spruce uniforms. But also the audience is gathered in a perfect pure TV spectacle. The ideal live-audience member is waving at the camera with one hand and taking a photo of other ideal audience members with the other. Seriously, kids, if you're stuck for an idea for a short Media Studies paper, then here you go, easy-peasy. Flip this on, record the facts, toss some Guy Debord and George W.S. Trow at the situation, and top it off with an apposite DeLillo quote.

Garnish that paper with Judith Butler, Andrea Dworkin, or any other feminist-ish thinker according to taste. It is at times entrancingly bizarre to see Top 40 sexcapades enacted on television, after the local weather report, during your English muffin. On screen, respectable citizens hold up children young enough to be held and hum along to Rihanna while she sings "S&M," a song about sadism and masochism. The other week on GMA, Nicki Minaj dropped by, and she mashed up an inspirational pep talk with some aspirational vixenizing during an interview with cohost Robin Roberts. Nicki, wearing a big blonde wig that Dolly Parton might demure and a wardrobe that was foundationally malfunctional, exhorted her young fans to stay in school and make the most of themselves. "Work hard," she carnally grunted. "It pays off. Grrrrrrrrrrrr."

Aesthetically, the lowbrow highpoint of the genre arrived last summer when Katy Perry tottered to Rockefeller Plaza stage to perform "Teenage Dream," a very catchy song about getting drunk and losing your virginity. Katy was working a Candyland theme in her stage costumes and promotional materials at the time and was clad in a mini-tutu that seemed to honor the tradition of Rockettes and played nicely off the Art Deco architecture. There were two sweet little crowd shots. The first transpires at about the 2:45 mark in this clip, where a well-adjusted youngster waves happily at the camera that has chosen to recognize her and then casually returns to the role of an observer enjoying the performance. The coolness of her manner is rare and reflects a poised unselfconsciousness that is not yet totally extinct. We might profitably compare and contrast her behavior with that of two faces that surface in the crowd two minutes later. Here we find a very charismatic woman in a hat (who responds with palpable coyness to a camera that is keenly interested) and her friend (who starts bobbing her head harder in response to the camera's interest). Everyone is swelling the progress of a pop hit.

Despite the sturdiness of Today's productions, Good Morning America's musical numbers are the more thrilling affairs. The bookers have an appreciation for '80s pop, and an at-least-semi-indie-ish streak that encourages them to mix Florence and the Machine into the line-up along with the radio-pop divas, hat acts, VH1-ready rock bands, and R&B songbirds, and the producers create an illusion of the audience shivering with teenybopper energy. Also, GMA offers the endearingly awkward co-hosting of George Stephanopoulos. Attired in a style of casual-Friday chic that suits him poorly, G-Steph looks especially cute. You can really sense exactly how much more comfortable he would feel if wearing a coat and tie, even and especially when serving up intros. "So are you guys ready to rock right now?" he queried a slavering crowd when introducing the Go-Go's a few weeks back. Belinda's looking healthy, and the Go-Go's are still pretty tight, it turned out. It was a fine recital to butter one's toast to, even if the miserable control booth failed to pull in on Jane Wiedlin during her lyric on "Our Lips Are Sealed."

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.