Behind ‘Vax Live’: How Jennifer Lopez, Foo Fighters, H.E.R., Selena Gomez and Others United to Rock and Repel COVID

Jennifer Lopez performs at Global Citizen’s
Michael Buckner for PMC

As COVID-19 wanes in the United States, symptoms like loss of taste and smell are on the outs too. Imminently returning to the “in” list, though: hearing loss.

“This is a fucking rock concert!” yelled Dave Grohl, repeatedly, as a Foo Fighters performance that seemed a third louder than any other act’s capped the Global Citizen-produced Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World May 2. A TV taping for a special to air across networks on May 8, it doubled as the first concert at L.A.’s new SoFi Stadium, and America’s first real stadium show since the pandemic began. Even with the Foos bringing tinnitus back, you could hear the wider reverberations.

“I don’t know how it’ll be looked at three or five years from now,” said Ken Ehrlich, one of the broadcast’s executive producers, the day after filming. “But I can tell you from the emails that I’ve been getting — not just from people that were there but who saw it on the news — that this was the prow of the ship that said it’s OK to put music back in venues. It ain’t Live Aid or Woodstock, but in 2021, to have that many people in one place to listen to music, and get a message through about why we haven’t seen this for over a year, is historic.”

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Brian Johnson of AC/DC performs with Foo Fighters at Global Citizen’s Vax Live at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on May 2, 2021. Michael Buckner for PMC

For Global Citizen, that philanthropic “why” is paramount — even if the “how” involved in putting the show together was an oft-fascinating exercise in show-biz coming together to reassemble itself, and in figuring out what protocols could and should be in place atop pandemic sands that are shifting on a daily basis.

Many of the speakers on the broadcast — from host Selena Gomez to Prince Harry (who signed on to co-chair, and gave two separate speeches at the event) — were there to convey two overarching messages. The first involved urging resistant Americans to overcome their vaccine hesitancy. The second was encouraging viewers who understand what’s at stake to pressure governments and corporations to send money and/or actual doses to India, Africa and other regions where even frontline workers stand little chance of an imminent shot, and where having the luxury of deciding whether to turn down or accept the vaccine could remain an impossible dream into 2022.

The outreach comes at an odd transitional time, where part of the world is in “happy days are here again” mode and, for the rest, the sky is falling. Says Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans, “I’ve got to tell you, when I speak to my colleagues in India, in Africa, even in Europe right now, they’re not (thinking) ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ That’s why I’ve been really at pains to speak to every one of our producers and say, ‘It’s not a celebration. It’s a call to action.’ That’s got to be the heart of it.”

Ehrlich clearly had that message down. “How celebratory can you go when we’re pointing out there’s a big part of the world where it’s worse than it was here five months ago? All I asked (of the performers) was that nobody walk out onstage and say, ‘Hey, let’s party.’” Except Grohl effectively did just that. He was careful to toss in some “it’s not over” caveats, but essentially acted like a big rock ’n’ roll puppy who’d just been thrown his first ball in 14 months. “You couldn’t fault him,” Ehrlich laughs. “He was expressing his joy. I don’t think anyone will misinterpret that for not caring.”

The live show, unlike what you’ll see on TV, was bookended with rock ‘n’ roll. After a few introductory speeches, it began with Eddie Vedder and a thrashy band playing Pearl Jam’s rarely revived “Corduroy” and covering Little Steven’s socially charged “I Am a Patriot.” (If you ever wondered what happened to ex-Red Hot Chili Pepper Josh Klinghoffer, he’s in Vedder’s non-Pearl Jam band now, taking a rock ‘n’ roll stance with his feet about five feet apart.)

It ended with Grohl and company doing 45 minutes of greatest hits, whereas everyone else capped out at two songs. Which of their six songs will make the final edit? You’d have to imagine that the Foos bringing out AC/DC’s Brian Johnson for a surprise “Back in Black” would make the cut. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine producers not using the group’s uber-power ballad “My Hero,” dedicated to the frontline workers who made up the crowd. Live, SoFi’s ludicrously wide overhead screens had cameras panning across concertgoers in the front rows wearing paramedic uniforms or hospital scrubs… an undeniably moving sight set against the emotional music, even when they broke first-responder decorum to give the pinkie-and-forefinger salute.

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Ben Affleck and Jimmy Kimmel speak at Global Citizen’s Vax Live at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on May 2, 2021. Michael Buckner for PMC

The broadcast will have different bookends, though — and both of them are Jennifer Lopez. For her first, more demure appearance of the night, and the TV opener, Lopez was joined by her mother, Guadalupe, after mentioning that they’d had to spend Christmas apart to honor quarantine. “I was talking to Tabitha (D’umo), who is Jennifer’s creative,” said Ehrlich, “and I said, at the top of the show. I backed into it. I said, is there a song Jen’s mother sang to her when she was a kid? I think it would connect with the audience.” He got the call back: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was her childhood lullaby of choice. It didn’t hurt that that’s one of the great concert singalongs of all time, and proved itself so at SoFi, even as it morphed into “Sweet Jennifer” at the end as mom and daughter hugged amid a giant pastel-forest set that hid a small orchestra in the glades.

The J.Lo that audiences might expect puts in an appearance at the climax of the telecast. Ehrlich (who describes her as “great to work with — she’s so lovely and positive”) puts it this way: “There is a tradition to be carried on with her with her back to the audience.” She’s joined by was 52 dancers — pastels now giving way to a lot of Day-Glo and skin — for “Ain’t Your Mama,” either intentionally or unintentionally doubling down on the maternal theme established at the start of the show for Mother’s Day.

There’s an interpolation of Saweetie’s “Pretty Bitch Freestyle” in Lopez’s latter performance. What most viewers won’t know is that Saweetie herself was supposed to make a cameo during that number, and then shoot a separate performance of her own — premiering her new single — for the extended 90-minute version of the show that will be seen on YouTube. Yet some time after Variety interviewed Saweetie on-site about her performance 48 hours before showtime, she had to bow out. Ehrlich declined to confirm any names, but did say that “an artist that was supposed to be on the show” had to exit after a crucial team member did not get cleared for work. “It was regrettable and sad to have to do, but these days, the protocols aren’t just ours — it’s the guild’s, it’s the county’s, it’s the state’s. They all have an opinion and all expressed it and basically said that we couldn’t put that person on the show. I would just say that, as difficult as it was, that person’s team was very gracious about understanding.”

Different performers came into the show through different connections. Vedder in particular has been a longstanding friend to Global Citizen, with Pearl Jam having made many appearances at the org’s past mammoth live events. A newer global superstar, J Balvin, came in with the help of one of the show’s producing partners, Live Nation. He was afforded the most elaborate or inventive stage set of the night — a giant half-moon prop, carved across the middle, that he and his half-dozen dancers climbed in and out of during “Otra Noche Sin Ti.”

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J Balvin performs at Vax Live for Global Citizen at SoFi Stadium Michael Buckner / Variety

Another memorable and unusual setting found H.E.R., fresh off winning a best song Oscar a few days earlier, performing out in the SoFi Stadium parking lot. She wasn’t consigned to the boondocks out of not being considered superstar enough to sit at the big kids’ table. Rather, the idea was brought in by Rob Light, partner at CAA, that the show could promote music education as well as pandemic education by having H.E.R. perform with a battalion of about 125 LAUSD middle-school music students set up with guitars. Then show producers put an additional spin on that: Since the SoFi parking lot was being used as a drive-by vaccination site, H.E.R. could have the guitar-slinging teens behind her and, in front of her, vaccines would be administered to people in cars who got a free show with their shots.

Waiting to shoot her performance, H.E.R. told Variety, “The Fender Play Foundation and I wanted to just give back to the community and make sure that these kids have the access and the platform to rock out and kind of show their skills.” Speaking to the optics involved of a guitar army, she said, “It’s been a long time since these kids were able not just to perform but to even be with other students, and so is like a reuniting of all these kids, as well as a uniting with me on stage.” H.E.R. may be new to some Oscar watchers, but she certainly has been no stranger to Ehrlich — who made a point of giving her more than one “Grammy moment” in his last few years of producing that show — or to Global Citizen, as she’d done multiple shows with the org before. (The L.A. schoolkids were in good company; the last time Global Citizen asked H.E.R. to do a collab with somebody, it was Sting.)

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H.E.R. at Vax Live Chris Willman / Variety

This all came together in, essentially, two and a half months. Said the philanthropic organization’s Evans: “We were contemplating the show in November but didn’t decide to do it until late February. How big the audience was going to be changed every single day based on county, state and city regulations.”

Ultimately organizers could’ve gone to 100% in California’s latest tier, since all attendees — mostly, frontline responders and health workers — had to show proof of vaccination. But producers opted to max out at 25,000 to ease anxiety in the house and send the right message on TV. A code was sent out to first responder groups and networks that could be used as a password to “buy” free tickets on Ticketmaster. Somewhere between 25-30,000 tickets are believed to have been given out via the ticketing site, with the understanding that many who obtain freebies won’t show. Their assumption that they would have an audience of about 20,000 proved true, although producers will admit to a moment of nervousness about a half-hour before showtime when they saw a sea of empty white seats on the floor, which would not have been telegenic. The verification of vaccination at the door, not surprisingly, was just slowing down the load-in a bit.

As for cast and crew, “we test everyone every single day when they’re on site,” Evans said. “But it’s actually a huge undertaking to find an audience that’s fully vaccinated. So, frankly, every aspect of the production was about a thousand times more challenging than it normally would be. Because you can run an audience right now that’s not fully vaccinated, but we said, you know what? We want to hold to the highest standard of COVID compliance because we’re Global Citizen. So therefore we had to work that much harder to achieve that outcome.” It still wasn’t an anything-goes kind of show. Food concessionaires remained closed, and everyone was required to stay masked when not eating their complimentary shrink-wrapped tangerines. This being southern California, there was near-100% compliance on the audience masking. (This being California also helped explained the unalloyed applause when President and Dr. Joe and Jill Biden, among many others, dropped in via video.)

Speaking before the show as the final elements came together, Casey Patterson, an executive producer on the show, said, “There’s a bit of magic in the air. I’ve seen this just a few times in my career. I’ve been doing this for about 25 years. It’s an indescribable feeling when you can apply what it is you do in entertainment to purpose. and given the year that the live event industry has had, there’s a real sense of a community in everyone seeing one another again, and safely. … I’m really moved by the collection of people from all walks of life — you know, we have royalty and rock stars and (on video) world leaders and the Pope and the president of the United States, in addition to our first responders and teachers and everyone on the front line. I use the term ‘rarefied air’ about the mix of people here for this. The only thing that I can liken it to is when I did ‘The Concert for New York City’ after 9/11, where we had all the first responders at Madison Square Garden, and this really feels like that.”

“None of us in the live world, whether it’s the artists or the people who hold the camera or the writers or the people who are running the lights and the stage, will ever take this for granted again. This is something that we didn’t know could be taken away from us. So there’s a lot of emotion leading into it. And we’re so thrilled to see one another. These artists are so inspired to perform for the audience of frontline heroes in front of them, but also for their counterparts all around the world who are not in a position to do what we’re doing tonight.”

With only five performance slots available for the main hour-long telecast, “Vax Live” didn’t have to worry about a lot of turn-downs. “Given that many artists have been off the road for the most part for over a year, this one was fun to be able to book,” said Katie Hill, Global Citizen’s SVP and head of music, entertainment & artist relations. It may go without saying, but “a lot of the artists were tired of the remote, record-from-home-type programs.”

Not that Global Citizen is about to knock those altogether, having pioneered and dominated with the most prominent examples of those in 2020. The org worked to boost stay-at-home morale during the early days of the pandemic with multiple, daily, truly live livestreams by dozens of stars and cult artists, then put a pause on that to put together the superstar-studded “One World: Together at Home” broadcast co-curated by Lady Gaga. Since then, they’ve put together a couple of other major specials, “Global Goal: Unite for Our Future” and “Every Vote Counts: A Celebration of Democracy.” But Hill will personally be glad when the org can fully return to the days when it was best known for putting on concerts in Central Park for 60,000 people or in India for 200,000.

It’s not a requirement that anyone performing for Global Citizen work the phones, as it were, in speaking to world leaders to advance their goals, but it often comes with the territory, as it did in this case in raising millions of dollars for vaccines from governments and corporations well before Vedder’s first power chord went down at SoFi.

“J.Lo, because of her great work with UNICEF, was so keen to sign on immediately,” says Evans. “We had a call the other day with Bill and Melinda Gates” — obviously, this interview, like the call, happened just prior to news of their separation — “and J Balvin asked the best questions, because he’s Columbian and he cares deeply about their access to the vaccine. Eddie was on that call, and we saw his passion come to life. And when we spoke with Selena Gomez, we said, ‘We want to see whether, as a host, you’d be willing to really advocate for these issues.’ And she said, absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve seen her on social, it’s been amazing. She’s been literally call and response with Cisco, who committed $5 million. We saw Proctor and Gamble step up with $5 million. She tweeted in Spain and Prime Minister Sanchez replied with 7.5 million doses donated, which is extraordinary to Latin America. It’s just been phenomenal, the way in which the artists community has stepped up with extraordinary commitment to the issue of vaccine equity.”

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Selena Gomez on the red carpet before Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World Marc Malkin

The causes that Global Citizen’s mega-concerts and cross-platform broadcast/webcast events espouse might seem diffuse at times. But for Evans, even something as specific as ending COVID ties back to what he sees as the all-consuming goal of ending poverty. He doesn’t mind if that seems like a tall order. Or if the tens of millions of dollars they’ve raised in this campaign seems like a drop in the bucket of the billions he says are needed to eradicate COVID globally.

“We need to get — ultimately not just ask for, but get — $22.5 billion committed to Gavi and to Covax to make sure that the whole distribution of the vaccines are covered,” he said. “We need 2 billion doses by the end of this year. And up until now, no governments have been sharing any doses. Even the U.S. government, the first time they committed was this week with the 60 million doses of AstraZeneca, and even those will take many months to play out. So we’re nudging governments to start to dose share at a level that they haven’t previously. But by June, the U.S. will have enough vaccines in excess to fully vaccinate 75 million people globally. So we want the U.S. government by June to have pledged at least that, and more, and this is a rallying cry for that call to action.”

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Prince Harry speaks at Global Citizen’s Vax Live at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on May 2, 2021. Michael Buckner for PMC

Evans relies on past accomplishments to feel this aren’t pipe dreams. “You know, our first campaign ever, when we were still called the Global Poverty Project back in 2011, was called the End of Polio Campaign, was focused on the communicable disease of polio that was endemic in Northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. We got $118 million pledged from six governments, and then Bill and Melinda Gates agreed to match that money, dollar for dollar, and that’s what really kick-started our efforts. Now polio is now fully eradicated in India, and it’s only on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. So we’ve had a long history in our entire organization of combating communicable diseases, because it’s at the heart of the effort to eradicate poverty. And COVID-19 has forced 150 million people into extreme poverty in the last 12 months. So it’s urgent that we eradicate COVID so we can get back on to our bigger dream of seeing an end to extreme poverty within our lifetime.”

He says it’s in everyone’s selfish as well as selfless interests to work to overcome vaccine hesitancy here and vaccine non-existence abroad. “If you don’t care from a philanthropic point of view, you should care from an enlightened self-interest point of view. Because the whole economy is not going to grow again until everyone’s able to resume work. But secondly, and most importantly, the virus anywhere is the virus everywhere. And if this virus continues to mutate, then it could make the vaccine that you and I have taken far less effective. So even if you don’t care because it’s the right thing to do, I think we can all care because it’s good for all of us.”

And it’s good for rock ‘n’ roll, as Dave Grohl would surely attest. “Let’s work as hard as we can,” the singer said during Sunday’s show, “to make sure that we can do this every fucking night for the rest of our lives.”