It felt like I had suddenly found myself in the riot scene from Mean Girls. Everything was packed, wall-to-wall, with kids half my size and a third my age. Show security looked like hall monitors for the fall dance. I weaved my way through a crowd that seemed comprised entirely of teenage and pre-teen girls running, literally running, through the Xcel Center's promenade. One bumped into me as I was trying to find my section and she squeaked, a look of complete horror on her face, “sorry mister!” and rushed away.
Welcome to a 5 Seconds Of Summer show.
Knowing absolutely nothing about this band except the description my editor sent me — “the most-punk band on Top 40 radio” — so I had to do some quick research on YouTube. What I found left me uncomfortable, annoyed, and resolved to not letting my daughter (named after my second-favorite Black Flag bass player) out of the house until she turns 30.
But I'm a dedicated professional journalist, so I braved downtown St. Paul Friday night with as much of an open mind as I could muster for 5 Seconds of Summer (or 5SOS, to their superfans). I entered the arena just as opening act Hey Violet finished covering Taylor Swift's “Blank Space.” (Is this a thing now? That record came out literally 10 months ago. She's still touring in support of it, for Christ's sake.) Once I got to my row, I found my seat occupied by yet another tweener sitting with an entire group of her friends, and after double-checking my ticket four times, opted to avoid another situation where kids stared at me like I was a narc and took an empty seat at the end of the row. Hey Violet churned out another 15 minutes of pink-haired/dreadlocked power-pop (think Josie and the Pussycats with a dude added for lead guitar) to enthusiastic screams from the crowd. As they left the stage, the PA started pumping canned hits while ads flashed on the backstage screen, also to enthusiastic screams from the crowd. Maybe everyone was just happy to get out of the house?
During the break, navigating past multiple crowded merch stands hawking $40 T-shirts and $70 hoodies, I stepped outside into the smoking pit, where multiple groups of adults adorned in “we're going to a concert!” gear were hastily killing smokes. I approached a group of women wearing Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead t-shirts and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but are you guys here for the show or chaperoning kids?”
They laughed. “We're definitely only here because of the kids,” one said. “We made them listen to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' on the ride up. They hated it.”
The woman in the Dead shirt put out her cigarette, nodding. “I'm just here to show my kid that I hate her music just as much as my parents hated mine.”
I returned to the arena as the canned pop music, featuring a whole host of hits that I'd never heard before, was replaced by “The Final Countdown” and “Eye Of The Tiger.” (Some things are timeless, I guess.) I went down to my row again and found it now completely full. If I was going to take my seat, I was going to climb over 10 people to kick an 8th grader out.
The usher, seeing my confusion, entered the fray and started ordering my seat poachers to relocate. Faces fell. Lips trembled. Then, suddenly, I realized: I actually was the narc.
“Wait,” I said, praying I could fix this before someone cried. “Just give my your tickets. I'll give you mine. That way you don't have to move.”
I made it to my new seat, a section away, just as the countdown on the big screen behind the stage hit zero, 5SOS took the stage, and the room erupted into screams so loud I could barely hear the guitars. Through the first two songs, I sat, taking furious notes on my tablet, as everyone around me surrendered to complete, utter, cute band alert rapture. Suddenly, the screams grew even louder (something I wouldn't have thought possible) and I stood to see why. Nothing seemed to be happening. Just four boys on stage, cameras occasionally projecting close-ups on the screens filling the back of the stage. Screams rose and fell at random. The cameras cycled through the faces of band: the sensitive, pretty lead singer/guitarist; the boyish (even for them) bass player; the lead guitarist with the Billy Joe from Green Day hair, awkwardly combed forward to cover his receding hair line. The crowd erupted in another round of screams as the drummer, who looked exactly like a young Heath Ledger, appeared on the screen, and I realized: The loudest screams were reserved for the dreamiest band members.
So how was the music? 5SOS churned out 90 minutes of pop music that rooted itself firmly in boy-band flash, punk fashion, and power-pop sensibility. Everything was, in a classic pop sense, perfectly written; more importantly, it was perfectly staged for their target audience. Unnecessarily coaching the crowd into sing-alongs? Check. Pre-planned banter? Check. Bringing an audience member on stage to play guitar for six seconds while the drummer told her he loved her? Check. (Way to go, Cynthia!)
I vacillated between being overly critical, trying to catch them working with backing tracks or some sort of outright fakery, and utter fascination at the phenomenon I was watching unfold around me, thousands of teeny-bopper eyes never blinking as 5SOS plowed through hit after hit. Kids didn't even have time to take selfies. I was at the teetering point of going completely native and surrendering myself to a shrugged, “Hey, at least they play their own instruments, this is sort of great,” when the band broke out acoustic guitars and shifted into a series of ballads. Suddenly, the room was awash with lights waving in the air, cell phones replacing cigarette lighters as the universal sign of absolute slow-jam love in the new millennium.
The ballads gave way to a familiar-sounding guitar riff and for a split second I said, “Are these guys actually doing a Dillinger Four cover?” before they broke into "American Idiot" by Green Day. They followed this with what I'm guessing were their two biggest hits (I recognized them from my minimal YouTube research), including a song with the appalling couplet “She looks so perfect standing there / In my American Apparel underwear,” which is the worst thing I've heard since Alkaline Trio sang about kissing girls in the curve of her clavicle.
The encore was quick and perfunctory: one more original and then a less-than-rousing cover of “What I Like About You” by the Romantics, which sort of perfectly summed 5 Seconds Of Summer for me — yet another in a long line of pop bands, some good, some bad, some whose hits have redefined rock 'n' roll, some who are only remembered for one. But I can't hate them. There was too much ear-splitting love in the room, and while I wasn't watching the second coming of the Beatles, I definitely walked away understanding what they meant to all the girls who passed out when they played Ed Sullivan.
Critic's bias: You didn't actually expect me to learn song titles, did you?
Notes on the opener: Hey Violet reminded me of all the bad girl-fronted pop-punk bands that appeared in every teen movie of the '90s and early '00s, but better. (Bif Naked, I'm looking at you.)
Random notebook dump: “Is punk rock about exploiting The Spectacle or stripping away the inessential?” See, even at a teeny bopper show my brain went Situationist.
The crowd: 90 percent teenage or pre-teen girls, 10 percent parents, plus one very awkward feeling concert reviewer.
Overheard in the crowd: “I brought my daughter for the boy band.” “Mom, they aren't a boy band, they're PUNK.”