For mainstream pop artists, the concert has long represented the ultimate proving ground. It, specifically, answered a key question: can they perform their hits live?
During her “Never Be The Same Tour,” which concluded its North American leg in New York City this past Friday, Camila Cabello resoundingly answered that question in the affirmative.
The backing audio may have been a bit heavy at times, but Cabello sounded fantastic whenever she let her voice take control. Her dancing may not have been technically perfect, but it was fluid, engaging and charismatic at every turn. Her overall stage presence and aura do not even need a qualification; they are just that outstanding!
But, in all honesty, “is she good live” was never a question worth asking. Whether in her stint with Fifth Harmony or in her myriad of critically acclaimed awards and talk show performances, Cabello has spent years proving she is a force on stage. She sounds great — and comes across as impossibly comfortable — in each of her live engagements.
The test has also become fairly obsolete in general. Thanks to the rise of music competition series (one of which introduced Cabello to the world) and social media covers, live competence has transformed from an impressive advantage into table stakes. With hundreds of thousands of artists routinely confirming their ability to sing live, the idea of the “hyper-manufactured, studio-made pop star” has largely become a thing of the past. While some artists still choose to lip sync or use heavy vocal production, most successful ones can perform decently in a live setting.
In today’s environment, identity and passion represent the key differentiators. Do your songs tell a unique story? Does your live concert reflect enough emotional honesty to bring people into your world?
The relevant question is not “can you perform well live”? It is, “can you be real live”?
That test was the one of relevance to Cabello’s first tour as a headliner. And it is one she passed with flying colors.
Camila Cabello is not simply a talented artist. She is a talented artist who knows who she is, what she wants to say, and how best to communicate with those in the room. She knows how to create a real, relatable, enthralling experience.
With the songs of a pop superstar, the ambition of an emerging artist, the poise of an industry veteran, the honesty of an acoustic singer-songwriter and the energy of a rocker, Cabello checked all the boxes, appealed to all tastes, and utterly dazzled the live crowd.
Her greatest asset, however, is the undeniable, undying passion for her art. She performed each number with an inspiring level of fire and belief. There was never any doubt that these were her songs — and not simply because they happen to appear in her discography. It is because she proved that each and every one, including her EDM features, clearly means something to her. (That also goes for the number that is not part of her own discography: a cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love”)
Any artist can, of course, say that while doing press for their album. At the final North American show of her “Never Be The Same” tour, Cabello relentlessly demonstrated it.
It is why a song-by-song recap feels futile; there were no dramatic highs and lows. While fans surely gravitated toward their “favorites” (in my case, ballads “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Consequences,” global smash “Havana” and future hit “Sangria Wine”), Cabello never showed her hand. Through her vocals and stage presence as well as the broader visual elements, she demonstrated a vehement belief in each song. It made even some of her more overlooked numbers (album tracks “Inside Out,” “In The Dark” and EDM collaborations “Crown” and “Know No Better”) stand out in ways they never did as recordings.
The belief in her music is, of course, only one part of the magic. The other aspect comes from the extent to which she connects with the room. She did not simply put on a show for the crowd; she engaged with it.
When I discuss the engagement, I am not writing about the throwaway banter with the audience (calling New York her favorite city, inviting the crowd to be her loudest one yet, etc). I am writing about the way her performances pull people into her world. I am writing about the way that Cabello seems to be bond with the crowd, ensuring every step she takes and every note she sings means something to them. I am writing about the way that Cabello seems to see those in attendance as people rather than “the audience.”
In the embodiment of this point, the one or two times she seemed to “break” from protocol, it was not because she brutally botched a note or because she got complacent singing a song she had performed similarly in plenty of other venues. It was because she was absorbing the experience. She is on an incredible journey, and everyone there cared enough to be part of it.
In a further testament to that reality, some of the greatest support (and dancing) came from older attendees and industry professionals who were not supposed to be so enthusiastic. When some of her young, diehard fans were frantically trying to capture the experience on their phones, “casual” fans were simply giving into the music and energy. Passion this infectious and belief this real are simply impossible to resist.
In evaluating strategy for the “Never Be The Same Tour,” many noted that the theater/concert hall venues seemed too small (especially given the small number of dates) for a star of Cabello’s stature. With Cabello also set to join Taylor Swift’s “reputation” stadium tour this week, it became easy to view “Never Be The Same” as a “pre-tour” or “warmup tour.”
Might those labels be warranted? Certainly. It is important, however, not to view a theater run in a dismissive context.
With an arena or stadium show, it is far easier to fall back on the “spectacle.” People are sitting in their seats taking in a big show, and while they may still expect an immersive experience, they do not fool themselves into the hope of intimacy.
The artist, consequently, can focus on the scientific and technical aspects of the performance. Am I selecting the right songs? Do my vocals sound good? Does the band or backing track pop? Are the visuals exciting? Is the choreography extravagant?
Make no mistake, each of those factors is important to any concert. They do, however, shield artists from a key challenge: developing a personal connection with each audience member. They allow complacent artists to focus on the question of whether they entertained the audience rather than whether they engaged the audience.
Venues like Terminal 5 (the site of Cabello’s New York show) do not offer that safety net. The environments can accommodate some pizzazz (Cabello’s set includes a big screen behind the stage, as well as some lights and choreography), but they do not shield performers from the need to connect.
The environment is particularly challenging for mainstream, young-skewing pop stars who generally have to play their songs “as-is.” There is an expectation of consistency, preventing them from taking the risks available to the niche (and hungry) rock, hip-hop and jam artists that also play these kinds of venues.
Cabello thus had to deliver on the expectations of intimacy and honesty without straying too far from “mainstream” choreography or the “polished” sound of her record.
She overcame that challenge with ease, and identity was the key. When you are always so true to who you are, you never have to filter your light for the audience. The one thing this crowd, above all, wanted to see was Camila Cabello being Camila Cabello. They got that, because this particular artist knows no other way. Even when she was performing safely, she was never performing impersonally or dishonestly.
Not one aspect of the show – from the full-on dance breaks, to the “cutesy” choreography in “Into It,” to the stripped yet relentless passion of “Consequences,” to the touching “Something’s Gotta Give” clips, to the sunglass-swagger of “Sangria Wine” – felt like a calculated “choice” for Cabello. She was simply performing out of love for (her) music, belief in her artistic vision, and a powerful connection with her fans.
When you combine that effortless sense of identity with Cabello’s level of intensity and energy, you’re left with a pop show that can more than hold up in a rock-friendly venue. Buoyed by brighter lights, louder speakers, larger crowds and a more quintessential “event” feel, it will also hold up in arenas and stadiums.
Because it doesn’t as notably test for intimacy, a solid show at the Barclays Center would not necessarily have proven that Cabello could rock Terminal 5. The show she delivered at Terminal 5, on the other hand, reveals that she will be fine in larger venues. She proved she has the quality that can shine on any stage: honesty.
There is no illusion that the upcoming “reputation” tour will be easy for Cabello, who will be playing shorter sets to stadiums of people generally there to see someone else.
But if Cabello ignores that pressure, and instead lets her raw truth and organic energy do the talking, the audience will be more than happy to listen. More importantly, it will be unable to resist connecting.
Returning to the beginning of the review, “I don’t want to see some lame lip-syncing” was once a standard objection to attending a pop concert. Recently, a more appropriate objection may be “I don’t want to see some artist perform some generic, impersonal, bubblegum stuff.”
As a relentlessly talented artist who connects with her music as well as anyone, Cabello overcomes both objections.
Given her passion for the craft and hunger for improvement, she will surely be able to overcome whatever objection comes next.
Review based on the Terminal 5 / New York City show – 9PM ET on May 4