Beyoncé Knowles' eye-seizing image flashes from the arsenal of giant video screens towering above the briefly vacant stage. And 10,000 mostly young, mostly female concertgoers, all decked out for the last big summer concert before heading back to school, erupt in a spirited siren of "Whoo!"s worthy of MTV's Total Request Live -- not coincidentally, the sponsor of this megabudget tour.
Never mind that Knowles' group, the gigaplatinum-selling, all-pervasive Destiny's Child, is still a good two hours away from even taking the stage. Or that the video being played between set changes isn't even one of those irresistible take-down booty-shakers for which the trio has justifiably earned all those MTV Video Music Award statuettes.
No, what that throng is cheering for at the moment is a 15-second TV commercial they've already seen a thousand times before on . . . well, MTV.
One of the most groundbreaking things about the TRL Tour is its utterly unapologetic, totally matter-of-fact blasting of common, prime-time TV commercials over the mammoth sound and video systems between each live performance.
"Yeah, this is a little unusual," a busy Sandy Lundin concedes between hustling image-hungry photographers in and out of the press pit in front of the stage. As the marketing coordinator for the Tampa Ice Palace, Lundin has done the backstage hospitality gig for nearly all of central Florida's biggest concerts. But she's never seen anything quite like this.
"Usually, you don't have commercials on the screens between acts," she says. "You basically just see the roadies moving equipment while some recorded music plays. But I think this is more of an MTV thing."
And a TRL thing. Indeed, by taking the pick of MTV's biggest crowd-pleasers on the road, and replicating the format of its phenomenally popular audience request show by including typically kinetic MTV "coming up" teasers and familiar commercials between the action, the TRL Tour brilliantly succeeds in putting thousands of chart followers, in 45 cities, smack dab in that Times Square corner outside the MTV studios window where the champions of pop are decided each afternoon at 3, 4 Central. The between-acts commercials only heighten the sensation that the whole thing is being broadcast to a trend-watching world. All that's missing is hunky host Carson Daly (who nonetheless appears on video, natch, at the start of the roughly four-hour spectacle).
But the estrogen-heavy contingent of fans didn't "Whoo!" like this for the Carrot Top 1-800-CALL-ATT commercial that just played. No, this one is different.
This -- shh! -- is Beyoncé's Feriá commercial, the chic 15-second showcase the singer (and now Wilhelmina model) shot immediately after inking her six-figure deal with L'Oréal Paris last spring. In it, the impossibly gorgeous 19-year-old tosses her long, straightened, Cool Blonde 81-dyed locks to radiant effect before a steely gray background. "Vibrant, shimmering hair color I can see," intones an off-camera female voice. "Independent color!" Beyoncé adds confidently -- and the TRL crowd, once again, whoops it up.
Looking out into the sea of young girls pressed up against the barricades, it's easy to understand why the cosmetics commercial manages to galvanize their attention. Forget about the music: the TRL Tour could easily be called the nation's biggest back-to-school fashion show.
With style-setting Destiny's Child topping the bill (what chic magazine have they not graced the cover of recently?) and other female fashion plates Eve, Dream and 3LW on hand to rock the house, a TRL Tour ticket is worth more this fall than a hundred trips to the mall.
Clearly, these divas are doing more than selling millions of danceable, radio-friendly CD's. They're setting the new standards of style and beauty these thousands of image-conscious young women are so determinedly, well, destined to follow.
Beyoncé may have the most marketed face. But the distinctive looks of the other Destiny's women, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams -- not to mention fellow Wilhelmina model Eve -- are also emulated, to varying degrees of success, by many of the girls in the audience. Levi's Superlow Jeans are everywhere -- there are more exposed belly-buttons than on the whole WebNursery site. Candies shoes (another DC tie-in) are a hot accessory. But there's one elusive element to the Destiny's Child look that many of the fans have a little more trouble just slipping on. A white reporter talking with the members of opening act 3LW dances around the subject, trying to pose a question about the difficulties some audience members seem to be having in adopting the styles and attitudes of hip-hop culture. But his companion, a black 36-year -old cosmetics representative, puts it much more succinctly: "Damn!" she says, surveying the crowd. "There's a whole lot of white girls wearing braids in here!"
Black is more than beautiful today: it's the pinnacle of cool. A recent USA Today story on the rise of major advertising campaigns showcasing African-Americans noted that "dozens of marketing giants -- from Visa to Marriott to IBM -- are all running new advertising campaigns that feature black women front and center." And people of all colors are buying. Market analyst Marian Salzman, a former Young & Rubicam ad exec who now heads up global planning for New York-based Euro RSCG Worldwide, nails it perfectly: "Black is the only cool."
"I think ethnic beauty is very beautiful today -- especially to teenage girls who see possibilities in it," Salzman elaborates. "Somehow ethnic is more expansive and less specific, also less contained."
Young people with even the slightest mixed blood in their lineage are celebrating it in their appearance -- from Alicia Keys braids to Fat Albert clothes. Those lacking in pigmentation compensate for it with a brash, keep-it-real attitude and an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop slang.
"They can imagine and glorify without mimicking -- although I think some of the 'attitude' that's associated with African-American women is emulated by girls of all ethnicities," Salzman adds. "They want that edge, that sense of style which says, 'I know me,' and also that toughness which is both feminine but genuinely tough."
Indeed, some of that edgy attitude that's grown up around hip-hop now actually alienates a lot of blacks -- particularly older African-Americans. Rap hall-of-famer Russell Simmons, creator of Def Jam records, recently told Rolling Stone that roughly 80 percent of the hip-hop audience today is non-black, And you can see that at the TRL shows. By the time Nelly and his group St. Lunatics take the stage to inject some much-needed testosterone into the female-dominated evening, it's the white teens in the audience who are most enthusiastically waving the glow-sticks and hollering along with the crew's signature "Uh-ohs" on the hit "E.I."
"I can't understand half the words they're saying," complains a black father of three teenaged girls who's taken this time during the St. Louis rapper's 50-minute set to accompany his daughters to the Destiny's Child souvenir booth out in the Ice Palace concourse. "And the other half just sounds ignorant -- all that 'E-i-e-i-oh' . . . ," he laughs.
Many of the young white kids who've mastered all the hip-hop lingo in an effort to achieve some kind of honorary blackness may also be surprised to learn that R&B and hip-hop are just a couple of the many genres of music many blacks listen to. "I'd rather it be Nelly Furtado up there," says a black woman in her mid-30s. "Now her stuff I can get into!"
But for younger girls like 17-year-old Naturi Naughton, the darkest-complected member of the beige, brown and black trio 3LW, growing up in an era where people of all skin tones are striving to emulate the features of personality and appearance that just come naturally to her just feels good.
"It's great to look out there and see we have such a variety of fans who are different," she says, eyeing the packed crowd that only an hour or two ago cheered so loudly throughout 3LW's short set of hits. "They're giving us so much love when we're up there on stage," she says, before chanting the mantra that's now crossed over into the language of young people of every race: "It's all good."
The TRL tour is every bit as fast-paced as the MTV show it's named for. Kicking off with a few quick numbers by mid-tour addition City High -- currently riding high on the strength of its provocative (and irresistibly catchy) message song "What Would You Do?" -- the energy is kept at a fever pitch throughout the youthful 3LW's driving four-song set.
Dream follows with an equally short performance that finds the P. Diddy protégées working extra hard to win that love of the Destiny's Child crowd. In another era, these four white girls with the classic cheerleader good looks would be the ones stealing the fire from the talented black performers on the bill mining the same dance territory. But here, in Beyoncéland, you can see the perfect blondes sweat, working at a disadvantage to come across cool amidst all their naturally-blessed competition.
The concert heats up -- literally -- when the charisma-packing Eve takes the stage in an explosion of flashpots, pouring out tough (but toned-down) rhymes between a pair of giant gold scorpions. You can see her bite her tongue on the more explicit lines in her hits "Who's That Girl" and "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," but the Philadelphia Ruff Ryders' first lady does her best to keep the show on a Teen's Choice Awards level for the sake of the tour's family-friendly atmosphere.
Ditto for Nelly, who nevertheless manages to one-up the showmanship level when the multiplatinum rapper and his St. Lunatics actually pull a handful of fans from the crowd to bounce along on the four parked ATVs hauled out onstage for his megahit "Ride Wit Me."
All this escalation of showmanship and star charisma is just buildup, of course, for the megawatt electricity generated by Destiny's Child. After running a pack of their biggest hits, "Independent Women Pt. 1" (opening the show in perfect gun-totin' Charlie's Angels stance), "No, No, No," "Bug A Boo," "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Say My Name," the trio heralded as the new millennium Supremes prove their talent is much more evenly distributed with a series of dynamic solos: Kelly with a moving "Story of Beauty"; Michelle with a remake of the old school slow jam "Ooh Child" (accompanied on the monitors by home movies of the trio as little girls); and Beyoncé with her star turn on "Dangerously in Love."
When the idolized threesome wind up the festival dancing barefoot in a sea of yellow smiley-face balloons to the fitting show-closer "Happy Face," the women have left little doubt that they know how to please a crowd.
But as the tired throng files out of the arena, it's clear that Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle have scored an even bigger coup. They've put contented, proud smiles on faces of all colors. Especially on the faces of young girls who are proudly and gorgeously black like them.
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