Camila Cabello is at a difficult stage in a pop star’s life.
In the past few months, the 21-year-old Cuban-born singer’s success as a solo act has handily eclipsed that of Fifth Harmony, the occasionally adequate Simon Cowell-assembled girl group she evacuated at the end of 2016 in a flurry of she-said-they-said acrimony. “Havana” was a number-one single, Camila was a number-one album, and both showed a knack for distinctively personalizing prevalent pop trends.
Still, Cabello’s fan base, though enthusiastic and growing, probably can’t yet fill arenas. Rather than taking a chance on playing to a half-empty venue, Cabello has wisely chosen to hit rooms with a capacity in the 2K range. In Minneapolis, that meant the State Theatre, which turned out to be an ideal setting for her scaled-down pop spectacle. Cramming teen fans into a smallish area only amplified their enthusiastic din, and Cabello had an opportunity to showcase her ability to connect in a more intimate space, as an X Factor alumna’s gotta do if her narrative of self-made diva is to be at all credible.
Already deafening before the stage went dark, the screams got screamier as a closeup of the star’s face, eyes closed, materialized on the onstage video screen. A counter scrolled backward, the crowd counted down excitably, and at 0:00 the image’s lids shot open to stare out at us with a dreamy intensity. Shortly after that an actual human version of Cabello appeared upstage in silhouette to coo her hit anthem of liquified desire, “Never Be the Same.”
There were no elaborate costume changes, though Cabello’s aptitude at layering allowed her to vary her appearance as the night went on. She began in a snug, gold-spangled black jacket and long black dress, slit to the waist. The jacket soon disappeared, as, eventually, did the gauzy top underneath, till she was down to a cream bustier.
Cabello was almost never out of sight. When she left the stage, as she often did between songs, an onscreen video image remained to hype the crowd, accompanied by messages either flirty or inspirational, to match the mood of the upcoming song. For instance, the word “control” emerged from one monologue, and began repeating in a rhythm the fans picked up on, a cue that “She Wants Control” was next on the night’s playlist.
Two female dancers joined Cabello for that upbeat number, then a squad of male dancers emerged for “Inside Out,” which made room for a snippet of “Get Busy.” As Sean Paul instructed us all to “shake that thing,” Cabello flowed into her breakthrough hit, “Bad Things.” On the recording, her discomfiting squeal easily upstages her nominal duet partner, anony-rapper Machine Gun Kelly; in concert, his prerecorded jabbering was overwhelmed entirely by Cabello’s charisma, a crowd-pleasing display of male shirtlessness, and a climactic flurry of overdrumming.
This dancey interlude was brief. Cabello slowed down the set with “Can’t Help Falling in Love”; if her fans have only heard twenty one pilots chirp the Elvis classic over ukulele or Pentatonix render it as an a cappella lullaby, this was almost certainly the best version they’ve ever heard. Cabello moved to keyboard for her own “Consequences,” an even more flattering vocal showcase, as a pair of girls behind me screamed each lyric so loudly they drew a mix of side-eye and eye-roll from their peers.
Generally, the concert’s visuals augmented rather than overtook the performance. For “All These Years,” two dancers illustrated the push and pull of romantic turmoil in a So You Think You Can Dance-worthy routine. (Not a criticism in these parts.) And after Cabello gave a brief speech about how a moment “when I had to chose between love and fear” inspired “Something's Gotta Give,” a video montage of marches and protests—for gun control, for immigrant’s rights, for women’s rights—made the personal political, culminating in a big cheer as the face of Emma González materialized.
Cabello is premiering two unreleased songs on this tour. The first of these, “Scar Tissue,” written with Charli XCX, has long been familiar to fans thanks to a midsummer leak last year. Flanked by women dancers confronting themselves in the mirror, Cabello switched into reassuring older sister mode, making each fan promise to “be brave, be patient, be loving, and be so, so kind to yourself.” Cabello excels in that role, and she’s pretty believable with de facto fan flattery like “this show feels the most intimate and connected of the shows so far on this tour” too.
The inspirational portion of the show then gave way to the interactive segment. Cabello took the title of “In the Dark” literally, asking for the stage to go black, and her fans responded with a sea of illuminated cell phones. “I want to see how quiet you can be,” Cabello tried coaxing, like a teacher’s aide corralling a roomful of kindergarteners. Well, not that quiet, as it turned out, though they hushed some when she went off mic for an effective unamplified moment. Cabello introduced “Real Friends” with the opposite challenge—“I want to see who here can sing it the loudest”—and the crowd was much better at loud. She invited a pack of fans onstage to sing along, selecting mostly preteens for maximum adorability, including one stern little boy who was really not feeling this exercise in audience participation, stoically resisting even when Cabello scrunched down next to him and implored him to “sing, cutie.”
Cabello typically adopted a first-among-equals role with her dancers. For “Know No Better,” they were dressed down in street clothes (or, you know, street-clothes-like costumes) and took turns doing their flashiest moves. For “Crown,” by contrast, they were garbed head to toe in face-concealing black robes and darted furiously about before hoisting Cabello up to bear her across the stage. Though visually striking, this struck an off note—Cabello is a charismatic presence, but not a regal one. Fortunately the dancers were once more her sorta-peers for “Into It,” which included a snippet from “Kiss” and ended with the full ensemble lined across the stage raising defiantly clenched fists.
Cabello’s encore began with the second of her new songs, “Sangria Wine,” a slinky Latin number with a dub feel for which she wore shades and fingerless black gloves. It was a fine setup for “Havana,” which began with Cabello and two female dancers silhouetted by an orange sun at the back of the stage. Soon they were joined by dudes in white boaters and a show-stopping dance routine that included a quick salsa pair off.
Most pop concerts have as predictable a structure as most pop songs, and Cabello’s was no exception. But as with her music, she’s individualized clichés and conventions she may not even realize dictate the limits of her self-expression. After all, when Camila Cabello was born, the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” was the number-one song in America. She’s never experienced a world where Britney Spears wasn’t famous, just as Britney had no recollection of a pre-Madonna era. The music she’s grown up on has stressed the importance of “being yourself” while adhering to strict, unforgiving rules of how a song should be written and sung. Soon we’ll find out if she can learn to bend those rules in commercially acceptable ways as she matures.
Never Be the Same
She Wants Control
Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley cover)
All These Years
Something’s Gotta Give
In the Dark
Know No Better