Imperial Rockby Andy Davis / 28.10.2011
The 5FM box presented by Nokia, or some kak like that, is right at the top of the Cape Town Stadium, in the corner, looking across the huge white salad bowl. The stage, from here, is about the size of a letterbox. You can barely make out the band and have to rely heavily on the video walls. The sound too, is soupy and ill-defined; an ear-ringing warble and echo version of the Kings of Leon hits. Experientially, it’d be better to watch their live DVD on a flatscreen in your lounge. Thanks God for the free bar and the abundance of snacks. Invariably I find myself wishing I was down in the front row, or at a sports match. The Romans had this collosseum shit down. I want to be on the edge of my seat watching people fight for their lives. Instead I live in these stale plastic decades and I’m congregated with the rest of white, moneyed Cape Town watching some overplayed pop-rockstars turn out their hits, as close to the album versions as possible, as they regularly do around the world, night after night, city after city. The whole thing is ersatz. I find myself looking out the top of the stadium, at the hovering clouds, lit up by the lights of the city, hoping for a tsunami, an earthquake or the final kamikaze nose-dive of the financial system to put the confused averageness of the global pop entertainment machine to death.
There are, however, 5 girls in the 5FM VIP birthday box presented by Nokia who are having a good time. They look like promo girls, but maybe a touch too young and devoid of the self-consciousness that defines promo-girls. They’re running around with a kind of manic, unfettered glee, perma-posing with the b-team 5FM DJs, capturing the evening every 30 seconds on their cellphones and making regular trips to the bar for sweet alcoholic drinks. All in all it’s a bit too much euphoria for the sanitized PR environment, but they’re oblivious to the wide eyes and knowing half-smiles of the establishment. I ask the closest girl if they won a prize.
“Ja!” She shouts. “We’re from Durban, we’re in matric, my friend won the 5FM birthday prize by answering her phone ‘happy birthday 5FM’ and they flew us out here and are putting us up in the most amazing hotel and these VIP tickets to the Kings of Leon and it’s just amazing! High five!”
And with that she slaps my upheld hand, hard, turns around and jumps into a grindy-dance-whoop with her girlfriends leaving me feeling, well jaded. An image pops into my head of an OCD 18 year old school girl in Durban answering every phone call with, “happy birthday 5FM” but it’s hard to be judgmental in the whirlwind of all that euphoria. I end up defaulting towards nostalgia for my 18 year old self, red-lining on teenage hormones and excitement for the moment. When it didn’t matter if you were into the band, or liked the music, or had the t-shirt. A time when the opportunity was everything and the culture was just a backdrop for hooking up, getting drunk, being independent and having the time of your life. For them, it’s really not about the music, the Kings of Leon just provide a globally accepted and agreed upon space of hype for the youth to be young in.
I look out over the sea of people and wonder, is it the end for us? 1st world, 99% white Cape Town can’t even fill the stadium properly. Mzansi’s 1%. Occupy this. From up above, the view of the majority of the crowd crammed up against the fence of the golden circle just makes me sad. The way the poorer cunts were stuck up against the wealth barrier, halfway from the stage, still trying to partake in the communion of globo-culture but never being allowed to forget where they fit in the hierarchy. Varying degrees of “have”. Every level of the gig is compartmentalised, packaged and sold based on a perceived value. If you’re oblivious to this, or a big fan, you can have a good time. But we’ve come a long way from Woodstock. This is global cultural imperialism at it’s finest; the rubber glove on the cold, lubed finger of capitalism. You can just imagine the conversations that brought the Kings of Leon to the Southern tip of Africa. The Followill cousins and brothers are just kicking around their palace in Nashville talking about their next global tour when their manager runs in and says, “guess what guys? We’re going to South Africa!”
“South Africa, no shit man? Cool!” Whines Anthony Caleb Followill with his plaintif rising inflection. “Reckon we can fill a stadium there?”
“You betcha!” Says the manager. “They got all those big ‘uns left over from that soccer thing.”
“Alrighty then. Let’s do it.” The family chime in with a hipster yeehaw!
But then you can only imagine how shocked they were when they came on stage and it looked like fucken Belgium out there. A sea of whiteys.
“Hey Cape Town, We’re Kings of Leon!” Shouts Anthony, still kind of flabbergasted by what he’s seeing. Must be a bummer to think you’re coming to play in Africa and thinking you’re this new world crosser of cultures, breaker of barriers and unifier of peoples of divergent histories and then finding out that you’re really just playing to the same constituency who dig your shit from San Francisco to Reading.
The one thing Kings of Leon do have is songs. Clearly identifiable vibes. Uniquely different tunes that can stand alone. Some might even call them hits. This is really what separates them from the South African pretenders who clutter the local scene, producing music in the similar vein of contemporary pop-rock. But for me despite a clutch of good songs, Kings of Leon are really just a hick, country Coldplay with a bit more rock in their set, enjoying the global amplification of Hollywood’s sub-woofer.
By now the matric girls are leaning over the glass railing of the box screaming, shouting and rabble rousing with the plebs in gen-pop. They’ve basically created a dance circle that transcends the barrier. The 5FM camera guy has abandoned his rig and made the decision to mack on the matric girl with the dirtiest dance styles, full-time. Soundwise, all we can really distinguish up here is Anthony Followill’s trademark yelp harmonies over the soup, but it’s enough. The ephemera of live international tunes can still make you feel good. I’m not sure if it’s all the radio play Kings of Leon get, or that NLP production voodoo they use in Hollywood, but the gig is kind of coming into its own and it’s starting to feel like we might be part of something as the Kings of Leon trott out their hits building up to “Sex On Fire”.
But it’s hit and miss, there’s something kind of impotent about the show. Kind of like a song about great sex. It’s nice to be reminded but it’s still trite and wanky. Everything only comes together on certain tracks. Momentary flashes of lucidity. The camera man is moving in for the kill on the dirty dancing matric girl. His arm is floating over her shoulder, about to pull her towards him, but he’s hesitating and the arm is left suspended awkwardly, until he just brings it down to his side and pretends to rock out with forced abandon. The dirty dancing matric girl is now leaning over the railing, she just wants to party. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the whole gig. Finally they play “Sex On Fire” and it’s good, as we knew it would be. And then people start leaving. King Leon pretends to pack up and does the whole play play encore thing, waiting for the crowd to chant them back on stage for the final 3 songs. From Somerset Road we watch the fireworks over our shoulders, trying to beat the rush of humanity down the fan walk.