Normally I avoid stadium concerts; they are expensive and, unless you want to shell out insane amounts of cash -- word was that floor seats on the grass of the Yankee Stadium outfield went for well over $1000 a piece -- they are hardly worth the terrible view, the muffled sound, and the criminally overpriced concessions ($14 for a Bud Light?! Are you serious?!) More than this, though, for me stadium concerts lack that element of blood-and-dirt honesty, the charm and energy of being only a few feet away from a musician who probably slept on someone's floor the night before. I guess I'm a sucker for the underdog, and if watching an unshowered band in a grimy punk club is like rooting for the Rocky Balboas or the Moneyball Oakland A's of the music industry, then watching these megastars get paid obscene amounts of money in Yankee Stadium was like watching, well, the Yankees.
But, despite my misgivings and the lingering pangs of guilt about throwing fistfuls of dollars into the insatiable mouth of a gigantic major-label corporate monster and in doing so betraying the hundreds of bands endlessly crisscrossing the country in broken-down vans as they chased their dreams (think of all the merch I could buy for the cost of just one "Legends of Summer" ticket!), I was pretty excited about the show. It is not every day that a person gets to see not one, but two of the biggest superstars in a generation, each man a veritable god in his respective genre. Besides, New York City is Jay Z's turf, just a short subway ride from the projects in Brooklyn where he grew up, and I anticipated that he would be in top form for the hometown crowd.
As we got off the D Train at the Yankee Stadium stop in the Bronx, I half expected to see groups of thugs, gangsters, and wanna-be rappers ambling through the crowded subway station alongside the delusional girls in dresses and heels, made up as if they were actually going on a date with Justin Timberlake instead of watching him from hundreds of feet away. But there were no gangsters, no rappers, no one to represent. Bed-Stuy was certainly not in the house, as they say. In fact, the crowd was noticeably homogenous, especially for New York: almost everyone was white, well-dressed and unexceptionally middle-class, understandable for Timberlake fans but seemingly too straight-edge for the die hard Hova followers in the city. "I guess Jay Z is a little softer than he thinks he is," my girlfriend said, referring to a group of fratty-looking guys that could've just as easily gotten lost on their way to a Dave Matthews Band concert. "Or maybe they're here for Justin?"
"I think it's more like Jay Z priced all his hometown boys out of this one," I said. At $80 dollars a ticket for upper-deck seating, it's not hard to see how kids from the rougher neighborhoods in New York, even those that actually lived by Jay Z's lyrics, would have been forced to sit this one out.
We filtered in under the stately blue letters of Yankee Stadium and eventually found our seats only a few rows from the top. Surprisingly, the view was not as bad as expected, a testament to the "there's not a bad seat in the house" claim I had heard circulating about the relatively new ballpark, and as the sun set we debated which megastar was going to open for the other. I surmised that Timberlake would surely open because this was, in effect, a home game for Jay Z, while my girlfriend predicted that Justin's stardom had propelled him to the level of All-Time-Headliner. As it turns out, we were both wrong.
As the backing band took the stage -- two full hours after the show was scheduled to start, I might add -- and the noise of the crowd subsided, both stars began walking from opposite ends of the stage, eventually meeting in the middle as they performed "Holy Grail," a song from Jay Z's newest album Magna Carta which features Timberlake as a guest vocalist. The choreography was a subtle yet powerful way to kick off the show, bringing the two artists from different sides of the musical spectrum together in a way that seemed to bond the performers from the get-go. In fact, as the show continued on through a devastatingly catchy gauntlet of #1 hits, I was shocked at how often both men were on stage at the same time. Songs tended to be abbreviated, as Timberlake's pop choruses often melted into a Jay Z breakdown, only to be thrown back to Justin for a quick transition into another Top 40 gem. Though each did make a number of exits, cheesily through a hydraulic trapdoor in the floor of the stage, they were often reunited after only a few songs, giving the show a feeling of excited mystery and flowing surprisingly well through countless style changes. In spite of their larger-than-life stage presences and egos, the duo was strongest when they played off each other on stage, such as when Timberlake filled in for Pharrell on Jay Z's "Just Wanna Love You" and acted the part of the cop in "99 Problems," or when Jay Z became the world's most overpaid hype-man as he picked up the vocals behind Justin's "Rock Your Body."
But in a night of hits and musicianship that would rival even the best Broadway show, the pinnacle of the concert undoubtedly came when, under a single spotlight, Timberlake began to sing the first lines of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" in slow, melancholy a capella. Suddenly, it was if the entire stadium was holding its breath, and I could almost see tears gathering in the collective eyes of 40,000 people as Jay Z launched into a rendition of "Empire State of Mind" that, for lack of a more accurate word, could only be described as epic.
As the crowd sang the hook back to the megastars under the lights of Yankee Stadium, 80,000 hands raised in triumph or gripping the shoulders of friends, I marveled at how intimate the concert had become. I felt deeply connected to every last person there, as if we were all a part of the same struggle, or witness to some fantastic experience that no one could possibly understand except for us -- the New Yorkers, the fans, the dreamers. Justin Timberlake and Jay Z had managed to make the ridiculously expensive, over-the-top stadium show feel like the grimy punk rock clubs of my teenage years, when we all just wanted to be a part of something special.
I want to be a part of it, New York, New York.