On the second and last day of the 2018 iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas, local boys Imagine Dragons were the poster boys for #VegasProud. Kelly Clarkson, after some apparently friendly conversation with the sponsor, posed with their logos, as if to say she was #iHeartProud. If there was a singular badge of pride, meanwhile, it might’ve belonged to Shawn Mendes, who achieved the double header of dueting with Justin Timberlake on top of doing his own wildly received set.
Asked backstage by Variety which of his two performances he enjoyed more — joining Timberlake for a number, or his own ecstatically received solo set — Mendes said, “Of course, being up there with JT. I mean, my own set is very fun, always, but nothing compares to that. It was amazing.”
The elder pop statesman, if we can call Timberlake that now at his advanced age, had introduced Mendes by saying, “I’m a big fan of this young man. He’s one of the coolest cats I’ve met. He’s very talented, and he’s about to bless you people” — a lead-in to a duet of “What Goes Around… Comes Around.” Of course, this hasn’t been the first big stage Mendes has been invited to this year where it wasn’t clear whether it was the established artist or newcomer who benefitted more from the association; he recently sat in with Taylor Swift at the Rose Bow, to equally decibel meter-shattering effect. As Mendes told us backstage: “It’s been a crazy f—ing year, man.”
For Clarkson and iHeart, it’s been a crazy f—ing few days, ever since the singer tweeted her bemused distress, or distressed bemusement, about being invited to play the iHeartRadio Festival without getting enough actual airplay on iHeartRadio for her recent liking. Would that tweet and the subsequent brouhaha come up? On stage, at the answer was no, as Clarkson introduced her latest single, “Heat,” without any commentary or subtweeting. The only allusion to any powers-that-be consisted of a reference to having been asked to do a tribute to Aretha Franklin, though her rendition of “Respect” — which she said was the first time she’d sung it since season 1 of “American Idol” — sounded gleeful and uncoerced.
Backstage, though, the elephant in the room came up, as she sat for a iHeartRadio interview with Elvis Duran and Danielle Monaro. “You actually sent a great tweet out to iHeartRadio the other day that said ‘I’m coming to your show, you better play my music’,” said Duran. “And we’re all behind you on that. Monday morning when we’re back, I’m turning off all the other music, I’m gonna play nothing but Kelly Clarkson,” he (seemingly) joked.
“Don’t do that!” said Clarkson. “It was awesome to get to talk to everybody today,” she said, apparently alluding to conversations she’d had with iHeart’s off-air execs since arriving in Vegas. “It was just a conversation starter — just, ‘Man, I’m working my tail off. I know y’all are working your tails off; let’s make this a partnership.’ Because I’ve been partners with y’all for years. So it was a really good thing. I know it probably came off super-negative, but it inspired something really positive, and I love it.”
“I think all of us should turn our filters off a little bit more,” Duran added about Underwood’s provocative tweet. “It was awesome. Any time you want to say anything — we all learned from what you did.” Underwood seemed to have a moment of doubt “I’m not so sure!” she laughed.
Of all the acts on the evening’s bill, Clarkson sounded most effusive about Imagine Dragons, telling an iHeartRadio interviewer, “I’ve seen them live a couple of times now and they’re straight-up fire. They’re just incredible performers and writers, and it’s just all heart. You can tell people that grew up religious, because there’s a different level of passion that comes from them, whether they’re trying to get out what they were fighting against or fighting for — whatever that is, you can tell that level of passion is there. I really love them.” Dragons singer Dan Reynolds affirmed his place in the mutual admiration society when we caught up with him backstage, saying, “She’s a powerful woman, and I have nothing but love for her.”
When Imagine Dragons later took the stage for the climax of the festival (not counting a chill-out DJ set from Logic), it became clear the group hadn’t been given that key spot through force of popularity alone — although that would’ve done it — but because they were there to represent for their hometown, at a point when emotions are still high over the local massacre just under a year ago.
Before the live premiere of the band’s just-released single, “Zero,” Reynolds emotionally addressed his gratitude about being back in his hometown toward the end of a grueling tour. “When the shooting happened here in Las Vegas, we had just played here the night before,” he noted, “and all of our hearts broke for the city that we love… I can tell you this city means everything to me and to this band… You have come together in a way that I’ve always hoped. Since I was a little kid. I never felt like we had the culture here. I knew the people were here, but it seemed like we didn’t have anything to connect us, and there’s been a lot that’s connected us in this last year… To all those that we lost, we’re thinking of you. To the families affected, we love you. Vegas strong.”
Carrie Underwood had her own message song, with her newly released single, “Love Wins.” “I always love performing new stuff because I haven’t done it a million times already,” she told Variety backstage. “Hopefully people can sing along. I’m looking for those people that know the words already.”
Underwood also expressed gratitude for “being on the lineup with other talented musicians of different genres.” That was a common sentiment among the performers, with Imagine Dragons’ Reynolds saying, “We love it. We let people put us in genres, but we’re genre-less. It doesn’t matter to us.”
Luke Bryan couldn’t be riding any higher right now — he’s arguably the biggest star in country at the moment, with a rarity, a multi-week No. 1 song at country radio — but even in the everybody-streams-everything age, he doesn’t take too much for granted at an event he’s sharing with rock, pop and hip-hop stars.
“I always feel like I’ve got to win a crowd over, no matter what, even if it’s my shows,” he told Variety backstage. “I mean, you always want to show up and sound like a million bucks. But this does elevate those emotions. Any time I can go out there and somebody that has no idea who I am can go, ‘Oh my God, that guy just went toe to toe with anybody,’ that’s what you want and it makes it fun. Any time you’re outside your comfort zone a little bit, I feel like that’s a necessity in entertainment. The day that you always set things up for you to be safe in every performance, then it’s not really fun.”
An even fresher-faced country star, Dustin Lynch, was backstage in the corridors waiting to introduce Lynyrd Skynyrd after playing on the outdoor stage in the afternoon. “The crowd was literally on fire,” he said, referring to the nearly 100-degree temperatures, before correcting his English. “Figuratively on fire for us, singing and dancing along. It being an all-genre show, it kind of surprised me a little bit, how much people were rocking along with us…I could tell people didn’t really know who we were but were still vibing out and jamming out. Only music can give you that connection. This show is rare because it brings together acts that we would never share the stage at a regular festival setting. And as a musician, all these acts tonight I love to death — and listen to them daily at the gym.”
Saturday’s show ended up running close to an hour overtime, possibly in part because Timberlake’s set ran about twice its originally allotted half-hour length. Reports that he was doing his “regular show” were exaggerated; Timberlake’s normal set runs to 26 songs, and his performance here was a mere 11… albeit far more than the 5-6 everyone else’s capped out at. Complaints from the in-house crowd, at least, about getting more bang for their buck were approximately zero, especially when what additionally went around was Mendes coming around.