Our summer of pop

By David Farrier

With superstar Rihanna in NewZealand this weekend, the sassy singer kicks off an impressive lineup of overseas acts due in Godzone this summer

Rihanna performing at Allphones Arena in Sydney on Oct 3. Photo / Getty Images
Rihanna performing at Allphones Arena in Sydney on Oct 3. Photo / Getty Images

I never fully grasped how big pop music was until Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009. I arrived in the TV3 newsroom to find cameraman Grant Findlay in tears. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Michael's dead," sobbed Grant. He had taken out an extra mortgage on his house so he and partner Patsy could get to one of Jackson's O2 Arena comeback shows. Now his hero was lying dead at an LA morgue.

I found myself on a plane to Los Angeles to cover the story, discovering Grant wasn't the only one sobbing.

Whether I was outside Jackson's house in Palomino Lane or the main gate at Neverland Ranch, people were grieving. Loudly. Publicly.

"He didn't deserve this. We didn't deserve this," gushed one plump woman called Geraldine. I remember her clawing into my forearm, her weight threatening to send me toppling.

Michael Jackson's death made me understand that pop wasn't just popular, it was a huge, uniting force that we rely on. Once we had myths, then we had religion, now we have pop.

And this summer sees a sort of pop pilgrimage taking place in New Zealand. The thing is, we're not going to them, they're coming to us.

Melbourne-based mega-promoter Michael Coppel says pop in general is the strongest genre in music.

"What's happening is that pop is such a big phenomenon these days, it's such an inclusive church. You look at the numbers we're seeing, 30 to 40,000 people coming out in Auckland."

This summer is particularly full on. At last count, 25 shows by major artists are taking place between now and Christmas. Rihanna, One Direction, Beyonce, One Republic, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Jack Johnson, Fleetwood Mac, Leonard Cohen, Alicia Keys. Then there's Bruno Mars kicking things off in 2014.

So why summer? Well, while some of us are sick to death of the place, to them New Zealand might as well be Pandora.

The simple fact is, New Zealanders are mellow and while our weather warms up, the parts of the world inhabited by pop stars (think London, New York, Los Angeles) are cooling down.

If I was Justin Bieber, this is exactly where I'd want to be. Once a cute, innocent, Christian musician from YouTube, he's now making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His most recent piece of publicity involved a photo of him walking up the Great Wall of China. Except he wasn't walking, he was perched atop the shoulders of two burly minders. A commenter on website reddit.com said what many of us are thinking: "I kinda like the complete and utter sociopathy that defines Bieber. It's like watching some corrupt monarch treat everyone like s***, but as a goofy-looking Canadian teenager. Absolute fame corrupts absolutely?"


As well as having one of the best names in New Zealand, Sam Sargeant runs a business called Blak International, what he calls "a luxury events and experiences agency", meaning he looks after rich people who come to New Zealand.

Here calls working with Lady Gaga's crew who, like many acts, simply choose to stay here.

"They will come and tag on for five days or a week after their show. And no one will never know about that, as it's our job to keep it secret."

I like to think of Sargeant as some kind of secret agent. His website is always talking about the latest black helicopter he's added to his fleet. "What stars tend to come for is some peace and quiet, which isn't normal for them. Normally it's paps climbing fences and cliff faces to see them," he says. "They can do a gig, then in four to five minutes we'll have them on a chopper from Mechanics Bay."

Where do they chopper to? "If they are younger, say, Rihanna, who want a bit of the nightlife, they will stay in the city in a private penthouse suite in a hotel or apartment, or Mechanics Bay will get them to a location six to eight minutes away from Auckland. There's a 12-minute rule to move them: they don't like being moved a lot."

I think to myself that pop stars sound like cats. Cats hate being transported from place to place. I'd know, because I used to show cats.

Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Photo / David Fairey
Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Photo / David Fairey

Of course, not all the pop acts coming here this summer are descending into madness or looking to party at the viaduct. This is the summer of Leonard Cohen and Fleetwood Mac.

I found myself talking to Mick Fleetwood on his last visit, a kind man who displayed a wisdom and richness of spirit I've rarely experienced in the world of pop. Mick is a man who's been the one constant in the band since 1967, a band that's sold more than 100 million albums.

I tell him I think it's a sort of miracle he's still here. "It is some miracle. If you go through the grinding machine of not only what we psychologically became - certainly speaking for myself I was the king biscuit ... one who did everything he could to make sure he was not going to make it!" But Mick did make it, and he's coming back again: his third visit to New Zealand in four years. He says he enjoys the quiet that our country brings, and our wine. The whole time we talked, he was enjoying a glass of red.


Michael Coppel tells me he's answering hundreds of emails that came in overnight. Some of them are finalising details on the acts he's sending down our way.

"They love the country, the audience response and the natural environment. It's just a feel good visit. Often when artists drag themselves around countries and cities that aren't as attractive, it's a highlight to come somewhere they enjoy going to."

It works out for us, too. As well as seeing our favourite pop stars gyrate about, it's a chance for New Zealand to make some cold, hard cash. According to the rather clumsily titled Auckland Tourism, Event and Economic Development, last year's Coldplay concert injected $3.2 million into Auckland's economy.

Pop stars are in it for the money themselves, of course. Beyonce isn't going to come all the way here if it's not worth her while: she has clothing lines to run, charity events to open, and Jay Z to cuddle. And promoters like Coppel aren't going to promote a concert if it's not going to make them some money, too.

"Geographically, you're right next to Australia which is a big market, so it's easy to include you in a touring circuit. I think if New Zealand was in the location of Tahiti, you'd see a lot less touring activity."

I ask him whether it's worth hauling all the dancers, lights and costume-changes down to New Zealand. "It's a little bit more challenging as there are additional costs in terms of air fares and freight to get a tour there. But New Zealand is a very strong market. The last two or three years we've seen a real growth in the number of shows that artists can do. Multiple shows make a huge difference to the economics of coming. You cover your setup costs for the first night,and it becomes much more attractive for them to do multiple nights."


For many pop stars, multiple nights are a wonderful, money-grabbing end to their world tour. While their concert is your one special night out this summer, for them it's simply the end of an ordeal that started back in April with a giant tour of America (perhaps it's a European tour if they're that way inclined). From there, they've gone to Asia for a month or so and eventually ended up, disoriented and sweaty, in Australia. Finally, exhausted, they stumble to the arse-end of the world, the last stop. To put it in language the average New Zealanders can understand: New Zealand is their Friday night.


With so many acts to take in, I ask my friend Duncan Greive who I should go and see. Greive is one of New Zealand's best music writers, but I mainly remember him from university where he insisted on wearing stubbies practically every day. He tells me Rihanna is a must. "Last time she came, she was one tenth the star she is today, and it still felt like you were witnessing an indomitable pop cyborg, the future of music as imagined by Paul Verhoeven in the early 80s."

Grieve also says that Beyonce is on his list: that, all credit to MJ, she's taken his spot as the new king of pop. Unlike Taylor and Rihanna, these are her first shows in New Zealand which always adds a strange, end-oft of-the-world edge to an event pop show like this."

And speaking of Taylor, Duncan seems to agree with the idea the final leg of a tour can be the best one. "Taylor Swift's last three-night stand at Vector was extraordinary, and rather than the last drops being wrung out of the concept, it felt like everyone involved never wanted it to end. It was a ludicrous teenage dream of a show, a naive imagining of love, small towns, friendship. But its hokiness was precisely its charm."

Hearing Duncan rave on like this, I feel a bit sick. I must confess I don't particularly like pop music. I should probably see a psychologist about this (and I've been told I need to see one), but happy music brings me down. Jack Johnson is my idea of a terribly boring coma. Rihanna mystifies me. I was offered a place on her infamous 777 promo trip, in which her music label hired a 777 aircraft, filled it with music journalists from around the world and took them to watch seven Rihanna shows, over seven days, in seven countries. It sounded like a terrible idea and I was right. The Independent carried this headline three days into the flight: "Rihanna's 777 tour descends into anarchy and chaos." No, there's something in my brain that gravitates away from pop music.

I saw Grant Findlay the other day, that Michael Jackson-loving rascal. He and I are going to go and see Justin Bieber sing in November. He still orders Michael Jackson memorabilia from the internet. I told him to find a babysitter for October 30 as Cirque de Soleil's Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour is coming to town.

Even the King of Pop will be here for our summer of pop.

- Herald on Sunday

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