Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
They came from YouTube and gained recognition with a Chris Brown cover. At that phase, we looked on Karmin as something fun, cute, and capable of harmlessly killing three minutes. It was contained to its new media celebrity, and we could all walk away knowing it stayed there as a sideshow parable.
Early 2012 changed that, though, when Karmin released "Brokenhearted," an original Top 40 smash of their own making. With it, the bubble burst, and this niche internet meme went headhunting for anyone within reach of a car radio. How successful have they become? Let's measure that one in 20 years. All I know is that I watched a Gawker headline perform live last night, and I'm left dealing with it.
Karmin are on the road to hype their coming album, Pulses. They made sure to plug it several times at the Varsity Theater with shouts to iTunes, water bottle commercials, hand gestures I swear they've trademarked, and all else. Towing along with them was Bryce Vine, a young MC/rapper/hype man who knows a little something about parties and probably Florida, a place I feel he's visited often.
He seemed to fit that nerdy hip-hop type guys like Childish Gambino propagate, and his performance of "Thug Song," a track poking fun at typical Waka Flocka Flames, provided further evidence. He served the usual opener role, instructing his audience when to wave their hands, but his numbers wore themselves thin with the repeated "la la la's" and "oh oh oh's." Common content can be overlooked, but Vine just never brought it in the performance. He sank to those depths difficult to avoid for any live rap show. It was all summed up in an overheard conversation as a random bystander shared words with the sound engineer:
"How are you working the backing track? I notice it's there."
"We give him the verses, but on the chorus we bump it up. Helps things out."
The backing track would be our best friend this evening. And not just with Vine.
Though to give Vine some credit, he instigated one moment of glee. He handed the spotlight to his DJ and asked the audience if they wanted to see him play the trumpet. They did, and he yanked it out. His notes weren't the greatest, but watching him sputter on the brass, forcing out what he could, made me smile.
The set ended with a group selfie. Vine leaned back, hoisting his camera phone before him and the audience. The flash lit. "Gotta put this on Instagram," he said. I wonder if I'm in that shot somewhere, looking like I would rather not be in the shot.
Karmin went on soon after. I'll admit, I enjoyed their little YouTube covers. They weren't anything fantastic, but they had a charm about them -- white kids from the suburbs somehow reaching out to Top 40 radio -- and I found something American in it. Like their videos were the realization of the YouTube Dream.
Unfortunately, the -- dare I fucking say it -- musicianship and wit were strangled by expanding the act into a full-fledged band capable of multi-track, high-production pop. They used to perform as just the core pair of Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan. I might have enjoyed that show as a true field test of internet content. Or maybe I'd have been horrified. But I would have felt something, and that's what I was looking for.
With this, I didn't. Except maybe some rage. It wasn't particularly bad, just safe. The whole set, the whole band, the whole aesthetic ... it felt like putting on a suit and tie for a job interview to cover up the sweat you're really leaking. There was a moment near the top of the set that spelled this out. Heidemann pointed to her guitar player -- a lanky fellow dressed in white and a mustache -- and yelled, simply, "guitar!" He was instructed just then to show us something, so he did: five or six jumbled notes before throwing his head back into its shell, hiding behind everything else on stage. He came out fast, eager to rip into something of his own design, but realized how bad a choice that was.
Much of their set showcased tracks from the upcoming album, and I'm sure one of them -- like the single, "I Want It All" -- will please when heard at a distance, packaged up and shipped out via iTunes. This isn't something you see live, though. There's too much at stake. This is an act with an industry revolving around it now, and any hint of how they may actually sound live -- whether good or bad -- could tilt the axis and throw things off balance. That's why the backing track is there. That's why the drummer had two glass panes mounted in front of his kit, sending even more signal back into the overhead mics.
Karmin has to sound huge. They need to compete for an audience desperate for high-octane, feel-good drops and finishes. And I understand those needs. It's just sort of sad. When seeing a live band actually means seeing a band run with and sing over other effects, I'm not sure what the point is. Is it now just about making an appearance?
But I type this, and I know the audience loved it. They went nuts. They sang along, threw their hands to the sky, and pulled out lighters for the ballads. They didn't seem to mind that Karmin weren't really all there on the stage. They were getting what they wanted. They could throw their eyes on these celebrities and dance along to nearly identical reproductions of the hits they love. At that point, Karmin were just in service to their audience. Like they didn't have a choice.
Critic's bias: I like AC/DC.
The crowd: Yuppies. Or yuppies who thought they were alternative. Scene kid survivors?
Overheard: "Why's this dude have a notebook?"
Random notebook dump: Thank God for beer.
I Want It All
Too Many Fish / Thrift Shop
Walking On the Moon
Try Me On
Night Like This
I Told You So
Hate to Love You
Look At Me Now
(Chris Brown cover)