Simpson tour a sign of the new times
August 31, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS
Next Friday, Sept. 7, a procession of teen-pop phenoms including Eden's rush and
headliner Jessica Simpson (the other blonde diva after Britney Spears and
Christina Aguilera) will perform in the parking lot of the Golf Mill Shopping Mall in
Artistically, the show may not be much to get excited about. On the surface, it might
even look like another example of marketing's triumph over music. But it could actually
signal a revolution in the way that live sounds are presented.
The interesting thing about this particular tour is that it carries its own venue as it
crosses the country. Every night, it pulls into a different parking lot, erects a stage
that's 100 feet wide by 50 feet deep by 50 feet tall, and surrounds it with three
"walls" made out of 31 massive canvas tent canopies and a giant inflatable
entryway. In about two hours, organizers create a concert arena that can hold 4,000 people
where previously there had been a flat expanse of concrete, asphalt or grass. And the
implications are considerable.
The major live-music story of the last three years has been the emergence of Clear
Channel Entertainment (formerly SFX) as the dominant force in the industry. It achieved
this position via a multi-billion-dollar buying spree that gave it control of the majority
of indoor arenas and outdoor amphitheaters in the United States, including the Tweeter
Center, Alpine Valley and the Allstate Arena in the Chicago area. This is one of the few
markets in the country where Clear Channel competes with a locally based rival, Jam
Entertainment. And guess who's behind Simpson's "inflatable venue" tour?
"This is what Lollapalooza should have been," says Jam co-founder Arny
Granat. "It's your own touring thing--you can put it in a field, put it in a corn
yard, put it in a parking lot, put it in a county fair fairground, whatever it may be. It
allows us to work with whatever the act wants, and it's an investment for the
Jam's first experiment with a portable arena came last summer when it promoted a tour
by the Christian rock group the Newsboys in partnership with Nashville's First Company
Management, the firm that actually owns the "venue." That tour used an
inflatable air dome, but it had some problems that the current roofless setup eliminates.
"From that we progressed to this concept," says First Company's Dave Wagner.
"For so many years, kids have gone to the local arena, the local theater, sometimes
the local stadium if it's a big act. But they've always gone to the same places and seen
the same show, no matter who the artist is. We wanted to create something that could take
the music to a place where the kids actually want to go."
In Simpson's case, that's the shopping mall, which is the perfect setting. Jam is also
promoting Festival Con Dios, an 11-band Christian-rock bill that will use a similar
portable venue when it comes to Benedictine University in Lisle on Sept. 16. But Granat
notes that the concept could work for any genre in any location, bringing alternative rock
to the lakefront (a la the recent Radiohead show in Grant Park) or techno to a rural field
in Wisconsin. And he promises better sound and more comfortable, less sterile environment
than many concrete arenas.
Even better, portable venues do not have exclusivity agreements with Ticketmaster.
Artists could therefore sell tickets by any means they choose, and they could pass the
savings on to the fans.
"With what's going on in the concert industry, we must explore any and all
opportunities to exist within the structure of what's happening," Granat says.
"With this, there are no boundaries. We can go anywhere in the country and do
whatever we want.
"It's not like it hasn't been done before," Granat adds. "They used to
do those big revivals in a tent. But this is 2001; a lot of bands want to create something
different. Well, tell us what you need, and we'll build it! We will build it and they will
* * *
As for Jessica, I wish her music was as exciting as the stage she's playing on.
Simpson's saccharine dance pop is distinguished from the rest by a slightly more chaste
sensibility ("I know that I'm supposed to make him wait/Let him think I like the
chase," she sings on her second album, "Irresistible"), as befits a girl
from Dallas who began her career in the church choir and rose to fame via the Christian
We spoke by phone as Simpson and the inflatable venue made their way toward Chicago.
Q. So you're doing this tour where you bring the arena with you. What's
A. I love it because it's so intimate. I can sit at the end of the stage and
just look out and see everybody. I feel like I can reach out to people, and my fans feel
like I'm more special because I can talk to them, y'know?
Q. You've made two albums and established yourself as a presence on the
pop scene, but to a lot of critics, you're still the "third blonde." That must
A. I'm so over it, like I don't even care anymore. Britney and Christina can do
their thing and they can be successful and do whatever they do. It's completely the media
that compares us and puts us in the same category, and I've come to realize that. I do my
thing and I have my fans and I'm proud of what I do. I don't concentrate on any of that
other stuff because there's no point in driving yourself crazy. Whether it's singing in my
church choir or singing to my babies, I will always be doing music, no matter what. It
doesn't have to be professional; I just love music.
Q. Are there elements of the star-making machine that frighten you? It
must be odd to see your face on thousands of posters.
A. It is really strange. It's a really weird feeling, and still
haven't completely grasped the whole idea of it. I'm really oblivious to a lot of stuff
that goes on around me! But I think that's important, because I keep normal people around
me that really keep me sane, and I try not to get caught up in it. I mean, I might want a
Gucci bag here and there, but other than that, I'm still your normal girl from Texas.
Q. You're an attractive woman, and you certainly don't hide that, but
you're not thrusting your sexuality in everyone's face the way Britney does. Why?
A. If I'm going to go to the gym and work out really hard, I'm going to do it
because I want to, not because my fans think I look good. Because my fans could think I
look good, and I'll think I look fat, y'know what I mean? If I'm going to look good, I'm
going to look good for myself so I feel good about myself.
Q. Well, as a woman with morals and a brain, do you worry about how the
marketing of your music stresses your sexuality?
A. No. Seriously, I try not to worry, because there's many more things to worry
about than just image. I am who I am and I'm honest about who I am in interviews. I'm
honest about my morals and values, and at the end of the day, it should be about my music
more than anything else. But I do concentrate on being a positive role model--that is very
important to me.
Q. Where do you see yourself going on the next album?
A. Album number three I will write. I want to be very involved and I want it to
reflect my heart. You've got to do what you've got to do to get into the business and get
some status or whatever. But I think once you get there, you can do whatever you want, and
that's going to be when I really get to share my heart with everybody.