Ricky Martin's solo debut in Phoenix a sellout in more ways than one

His ass twitching like a pair of brained salmon in a black leather sack, Ricky Martin ascended into view, gyrating upon the hood of a silver drop-top Mustang. The 11-year-old girl in the seat to my left commenced caterwauling. "Rick-eeeeee!" She would repeat this exultation approximately 2,269 times last Thursday night, during the Latin pop megastar's debut Phoenix appearance.

The specter of Al Gore doing the Macarena was reincarnated in the girl's fortysomething father, who busted moves in the aisle to "Livin' la Vida Loca," unwittingly crunching underfoot one of the thousands of Armani fragrance samples that had been distributed outside America West Arena before the show.

Within moments, Section 104 was permeated by a florid reek. This produced a disturbing phenomenon in the Martin fans all around me, whose state of Ricky-rapture seemed only to deepen as the smell grew stronger.

Ricky shakes his moneymaker.
Paolo Vescia
Ricky shakes his moneymaker.
Pre-show Martin mania outside America West Arena.
Paolo Vescia
Pre-show Martin mania outside America West Arena.

Increasingly paranoid and surrounded, I began to suspect this was no accident, but the result of a diabolically brilliant cross-marketing conspiracy involving subliminal images, fast-acting chemical agents and unspeakable animal cruelty. Imagine thousands of primates in a matrix of cages, spasming in various degrees of artificial ecstasy as they watch a giant multimedia screen whereupon Ricky Martin mainlines "La Vida Loca" into their collective cerebral cortex.

It's a vision that approached reality during the opening minutes of Martin's concert here, which easily broke the World Championship Wrestling's record for the fastest sellout of America West Arena. As the smell of the cologne spread, I chastised myself for not bringing foam earplugs I could stuff up my nostrils. As it was, I had to gut it out, checking myself every few seconds for any new, wild desire to buy a silver lamé shirt, cut and streak my hair and gaze longingly upon Ricky Martin's celebrated booty.

Onstage, his pitch flatter than Kansas, Martin popped the trunk on the Mustang to release a fringe-bikinied dancer during the frenzied wind-up to "Livin' la Vida Loca." In concert, the song's strongest (arguably only) Latin influence remained its title. Like the ubiquitous artist himself, Martin's all-pervasive single is ethnic, but not, as they say on Madison Avenue, too ethnic.

After "Livin' la Vida Loca" ended and the screaming subsided to the decibel reading of a Harrier jump jet on takeoff, Martin began his first of many Spanglish sermons on the life and philosophy of Ricky Martin.

First, he compared himself to Simon Bolívar, Venezuela's hero of independence. Some of his words were obliterated by screaming, but I made out enough to understand he was equating the spread of Latin pop in North America with the spread of democracy in Central and South America.

Let's see . . . embracing one movement means purchasing Martin's product. The other means, for many, risking death by torture.

Next, Martin implored the crowd to forget about their egos for the rest of the show. What he precisely said was: "Please, could we all just leave our egos at the door?" Presumably he meant outside the arena, where tee shirts bearing his likeness were selling for $30 each.

Martin repeated this rhetorical, anti-ego question four times, stopping to bask in the screams of adulation that greeted his every utterance. Shaking his fist at the very idea of anyone ego-tripping inside his concert, Martin stepped onto a platform that elevated him high above the crowd, singing against the backdrop of a massive video screen showing pictures of our humble Hispanic homey.

Oh, I'm sorry. Am I coming off as cynical?

Maybe it was Martin's witless hypocrisy that turned me into such a spoilsport. Or it could have been the barefaced commercialism, which most of the audience accepted as if it was coming to them through an umbilicus.

Between the moment the house lights went down and the moment Ricky ticky-tackied his way onstage, advertisements for Pepsi and Armani were projected onto a curtain behind which Martin's band lay in wait. So we're clear on this point, 16,000-plus people were subjected to television advertisements at a concert where decent seats cost $75 face value, $100 and up from scalpers outside the arena.

Any irritation I felt toward Martin and the advertisers, however, was immediately and vastly overshadowed by the irritation I felt toward the majority of their viewers, who responded to the spots with a new round of vigorous screams. Maybe this was because the ads were a sign Ricky was finally done primping and would soon take the stage (there was nearly an hour's wait after the opening act). Maybe it was because they judged that since Ricky had chosen to sell his name to Pepsi and Armani (neither ad featured Martin himself), Pepsi and Armani must be deserving of screams nearly as loud as those saved for Ricky.

Whatever -- an arena full of people cheering a Pepsi ad is a real optimism-stomper.

Not that I went to see Ricky Martin expecting spiritual revival (one word: Menudo). I went because I was curious. I was curious to see the embodiment of hype, and I was curious to see who else came, and why.

For the hour before the concert, I wandered the square outside the arena's main entrance, sometimes shadowing one of the four TV camera crews stalking Martin fans.

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