Sign of the Times

Martha Rich

Up close, the B-52's are a charming lot, if a bit odd. They are, after all, homo-cosmic beehive fetishists from Athens, Georgia. The strangest thing about them right now, though, is that members of the band have formed a circle around a quiet, dignified black woman in a wheelchair, making small talk. The woman is Coretta Scott King.

It's around noon on the last Tuesday in August. This surreal confab is happening at a party thrown by Target Corporation for some 3,500 of the company's store managers from around the country. A handful of folks are hanging around in one of the ballrooms in the Minneapolis Convention Center, sipping nonalcoholic spritzers and noshing on muffins. Some of these people are gofers, some are stage managers, and some are very famous.

The B-52's are here because they had a song in a summer ad campaign; King came to make some brief remarks onstage. India Arie is here with a large contingent, and so are two guys from Hoobastank (at least they are supposed to be here, but it's not entirely clear that they're coming and I wouldn't recognize them anyway). People tend to act a little uptight when there's talent like this around; there are countless walkie-talkies and cell phones and a lot of purposeful-looking running around.

To call this a party is a bit misleading--it's more like a presentation, or an event. All morning in an adjacent auditorium a succession of representatives from Target have been taking to the podium to tell other representatives from Target seated in the audience what a great company they work for, how well ad campaigns from the past year have worked, and how cool the new campaigns will be. Target's internal slogan, "Best Company Ever," appears repeatedly on one of the three screens hanging over the stage.

Target is hardly alone in bringing in such big names to play a company event. In fact, in recent years the union of rockers with corporations has become so commonplace that nobody even thinks to cry sellout anymore. Sheryl Crow plays these things. So do the Rolling Stones. Even Bob Dylan has done one.

Still, there's something sad about the trend, especially for purists who like a distinct separation between our art and our commerce. The appearances tend to cheapen the image of the musicians, and the corporations can come off looking indulgent. But then again, a gig is a gig.

I'm here to play drums with my band, 2 Tickets 2 Paradise, which was hired to perform just one song, which we did a few minutes ago. The B-52's are readying to go on after us, and the ballroom has cleared out. Suddenly I feel a presence behind me. I turn around, and Stevie Wonder is being led by hand toward his dressing area. He's stout and waddles a little, his thick long braids hanging over a leather-mesh sweater. I'm rarely star-struck, but a little squeal escapes me.

My band was hired to perform a song that's not even ours. For a new ad campaign, Target has chosen "Don't Stop Living in the Red"--a reference to the company's signature color scheme, not its spreadsheets--by an up-and-coming pop-metal dude named Andrew W.K., who was on tour and unavailable.

There's no telling how much Target is spending here. For three days, maybe a third of the convention center will be reserved for the event, and about 100 production managers, sound men, stage crews, and equipment movers will draw paychecks from somewhere. I'll walk away with $1,000 in my pocket, roughly my take for ten gigs in local clubs.

We had loaded in our gear two days before, on a Sunday afternoon. That day we were greeted by a woman named Kari, who wore a headset and told us to set up on two "pods"--little mobile band shells that were wheeled out onstage when the curtain went up. Kari was polite and professional and had all of our names memorized immediately. She had us rolled onto the stage to run through the song no less than four times.

Then someone led us to our dressing area, where we tried on our wardrobe. All the outfits were ridiculous: Mine consisted of a tight, ribbed T-shirt, bright-red jeans, and two studded leather wristbands. We ran though the song and staging a couple more times, so the camera crew could see how the red wardrobe played on the giant screens.

On our last run-through, Kari issued a warning: "Guys, this time there's gonna be pyro." Sure enough, when we finished the song, giant whirling sparklers and flashpots went off. Sulfur hung in the air as we left for the day.

By the time the big event finally happens, three days later, we've played "our song" more times than I can remember. When we finish, the B-52's light up the stage. Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson are making shrieking "lobster" sounds, while Fred Schneider provides a deadpan voiceover.

"The B-52's are hard, man," one of the long-haired union guys says to me as we watch them do "Rock Lobster" on a small monitor backstage. "They sound-checked yesterday for, like, a half an hour and just killed us all. Total pros."

Eventually, the employee audience--carrying noisemakers and bags of wristwatches and headphone radios emblazoned with the Target bull's-eye--shuffle out to another part of the convention center where a circus of sorts is under way. There's a huge Target hot-air balloon erected in the center of the hall, and a guy whizzing around inside a see-through sphere on a motorbike. Kids do tricks on a skateboard ramp. Two members of the Monkees play, and then there's a thunderclap of indoor fireworks and a downpour of confetti.

Outside the convention center, an army of limos and SUVs wait to take the talent back to the airport. Two of the B-52's seem a little dazed coming into the bright sun of the afternoon, and they wait patiently at the back door of a stretch limo. Apparently that's one code of the famous: Never open the door of a limo yourself. Always wait for the driver to open it.

Behind them, a steady stream of celebrities and their entourages step out into the heat and up to the limos. Before mid-afternoon, all of them are gone.

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