Maybe the final third of Machine Gun Kelly’s set at the Xcel Energy Center last night was brilliant. Maybe his encore was James-Brown-at-the-Apollo-level stunning. The clod whose hour-plus of pop-punk plod sent me out the door with at least a half hour to go? Maybe he revealed himself as a master showman, so that the tedium that preceded was not just excused, but thoroughly justified. I’ll never know.
Based on the evidence I gathered, I have my doubts.
I’m not in the habit of ducking out of shows I review, and I’ve certainly stuck it out through worse. But there was just something so dispiriting about the 32-year-old Kelly’s packed St. Paul concert. It wasn’t just the predictability of the music: pop punk as streamlined to cliché by the Warped Tour two decades ago, with single riffs that repeat precisely as the bass hits the tonic of each chord, all but drowned out by the drums. It wasn’t just his over-reliance on backing tracks, musically and vocally. It wasn’t just his smug little homilies about believing in yourself no matter what “the internet” says about you. It wasn’t even just the fact that everyone around me was digging it so much. It’s just that none of it even feels worth complaining about.
With a set of cheekbones you could slit your wrists on and the hipless waistline of a ten-year-old boy, Colson Baker has been a potential star in search of the right galaxy to showcase him for a decade now. Enter Blink 182’s (and everyone else’s) drummer Travis Barker, the punkest Karadashian, who whammo-blammoed the former rapper to pop-punk celebrity with his 2020 genre-switcheroo, Tickets to My Downfall. But like all whiners, this just gave Kelly more to complain about. His success should have been overnight; he should be universally admired. Last night the man who somehow made tongue-wrestling Megan Fox seem unerotic reminded us that all that was holding him back for years was his absolute dearth of charisma.
The show’s visual excesses were klutzier than they were breathtaking. The night began with video clips of two MGK “characters.” One was the rocker himself, in need of rescue, because he was trapped in a cardboard box. “I think the internet put me in a box,” he explained. (Apologies to anyone who heard me groan aloud.) The other was his rescuer, the mustachioed pilot of what turned out to be a massive pink chopper. Impressive only in the fact that someone went ahead and actualized this dumb idea, the copter hovered above the crowd till it reached the back of the room, where MGK escaped his box and began his performance clinging to a ladder like he was escaping Saigon.
Mostly, though, this was a straightforward rock show. The stage was a sharply titled circular chessboard filled with assorted rocker-looking rockers. Kelly ripped his pants at one point, and made quite a deal out of the exposed flesh without ever seeming flirty or sexy. When he introduced the band, his guitarist played part of the closing solo of “Purple Rain.” But really, this is all just easy listening pop-rock for Warped lifers, as musically reassuring and unthreatening as, oh, Steve Winwood’s ’80s hits were to your parents.
But Stevie never demanded our love. Which brings us to Kelly’s “provocative” new album title, Mainstream Sellout. (With an anarchy symbol subbing for an A, natch.) What could that phrase possibly mean to anyone under 30 today? With underground culture decimated by hip-hop’s capitalist realism, pop’s no-alternative juggernaut, and big tech’s reduction of art to a loss leader, the phrase lacks even an ironic punch. Who’s he even supposed to be taunting? Is your dad gonna force feed you side five of Sandinista when you get home as punishment?
Then again, MGK’s whole deal these days is that the world is against him, which is a very cool thing for a teen to feel but a matter that an adult should address with a licensed professional. Worse still, it’s not even the world that’s out to get him, but “the internet,” which was embodied last night (I shit you not) by a giant inflatable humanoid with a monitor for a head. “If the internet was right about Machine Gun Kelly, when the lights go on there would be nobody here,” he declared at one point. I’m no logician, but I see some flaws in that syllogism.
As for lyrics: “I used to have a soul until I threw it away,” “you sold your soul,” “I’d rather be a freak,” “alienate me,” “breakups are entertaining,” “I’m damaged/Please don’t fix me.” You get the idea. Then there’s sex and drugs, indulgences Kelly sings about without enjoying. His idea of hot sex is acting like an asshole and then calling his lover crazy. There’s assuring kids that everyone has dark moments, and there’s lying to kids that their lives are more hopeless than they are because it makes you feel sexy and famous.
I should also mention opener Avril Lavigne (a sad phrase to see in 2022), who bopped back out to duet with Kelly on her mediocre new song “Bois Lie.” (She also lit a two-foot facsimile of a joint for him.) Her earlier performance was enthusiastically received and short as hell—five quick songs that flatteringly reduced her career to its peaks.
I never found out if the chopper came back for Kelly. Reviewers with more commitment to their professional obligations (or maybe just reviewers with bosses) tell me the giant scary internet man eventually deflated. I’m sure there was plenty more about how we—the big, bad media—hate him.
To which I can only say: