The early fliers for Springfest 2010 promised a genre-spanning lineup of musicians, but the event belonged to headliner T-Pain, no contest.
Program Board’s annual festival, which has in recent years featured appearances from big names such as Lupe Fiasco, Pinback, The Game and even his holiness, Snoop Dogg, brought out a raucous audience of hundreds by the time the Auto-Tune wizard took the stage. But McCarthy Quad didn’t look that way earlier in the day.
USC’s own Natalie Angiuli kicked the event off around 1 p.m., strumming through a helping of pleasant, if somewhat self-conscious, acoustic numbers with a small but interested crowd seated before the stage. Unfortunately for the other daylight acts, the audience would disintegrate into a scattered gathering around the merchant booths and food vendors. Several times throughout the afternoon, various musicians awkwardly invited the unsure spectators to move closer to the stage.
In all fairness to the absent throngs that have normally populated the festival in past years, the daytime lineup was notably lacking in musical diversity. Comprised almost entirely of upcoming indie-rock and hip-hop acts, the bill was bland and one wondered what would’ve happened if Program Board booked a well-known electronic or experimental artist. Given the mainstream ascendence of artists like Yeasayer and MSTRKRFT in recent years, it might be worth a try.
Thankfully, just when it seemed that 2010’s Springfest would be embarrassingly under-attended, a solid crowd began to form near sundown as NorCal rapper Bobby Brackins took the stage for a quick but formidable 10-minute set. Three-piece band The Cataracs followed, suggesting what a jam session between Akon and Drownsoda might sound like. Finally, Virginia Beach duo Clipse led the crowd with powerful renditions of “Freedom,” “There Was a Murder” and several tracks off its new LP, Til the Casket Drops.
By the time T-Pain emerged onstage with a two-man entourage at 9:30 p.m. — with almost unheard of punctuality from a headliner whose set was scheduled to begin at 9:25 p.m. — hundreds had gathered in front of the stage, some clearly drunk, but all roaring with gratification.
What followed was a shamelessly enjoyable mix of music and comedy. A pattern began to emerge, with T-Pain running through the first minute or two of all his most recent hits, each track broken by a muffled explosion, courtesy of D.J. Louis. Were it not for T-Pain’s tangible energy and hysterically over-the-top dance moves (lots of airplanes and crotch grabs made the cut), the routine would have felt predictable and disappointing. Instead, the singer brought the house down for nearly an hour.
If there was in fact a vocoder in T-Pain’s rig, it was kept well concealed. While the live vocals occasionally rang with the digitally manipulated notes T-Pain has unleashed upon mainstream hip-hop since 2005, the Auto-Tune did not make or break the show, as one might have expected.
Between songs, T-Pain and his sidekicks loosened up with playful barbs about what they thought was USC’s status as a dry campus (“You’re gonna be my Noveau,” T-Pain said to the audience at one point), asides about losing weight and the occasional boast about their many accomplishments. Toward the end of the set, T-Pain took a moment to note that his current quota of No. 1 hits ranks one spot lower than that of the Beatles.
The performer then suggested — somewhat crudely — that audience members encourage their mothers to consider that while engaging in certain sexual acts.
For the most part, the crowd responded with loud enthusiasm swaying to and singing along with “Got Money,” “Yeah,” “Low,” “Can’t Believe It” and, of course, “Buy You A Drank.”
As the show passed the half-hour mark, however, a slow chant began for “I’m On a Boat,” the Lonely Island-penned number that might be T-Pain’s most recognized work.
Eventually, the request became so deafening that T-Pain complied and made an abrupt, unnatural segue into the song’s first verse, placating the gathered masses.
Even if T-Pain’s set benefited from a good balance of gusto and self-parody, the singer seemed to reach his limit of self-deprecation at this moment. For the remainder of the show, his performance felt deflated and unenthusiastic. But despite the crowds’ being electric with exaltation moments before, people were visibly disappointed when T-Pain made an abrupt exit near 10:30 p.m.
In retrospect, the selection of T-Pain for Springest’s headliner, while a polarizing choice, was absolutely necessary to inject some life into the event. But nature of that life remains questionable. The last-minute crowds that made it out for T-Pain’s set are, if anything, a clear indication that the age of irony is far from over.
There’s nothing wrong with appeasing such interest now and then, but for next year’s Springfest, Program Board would do well to consider pursuing acts that might remain relevant several years from the performance date. Clipse’s inclusion on this year’s bill and 2007’s Lupe Fiasco were each a step in the right direction. Even MGMT’s 2008 appearance on The Row remains a reminder of what USC can potentially pull off with its money and resources.