About thirty minutes into Pitbull’s set at South by Southwest last night, after he’s had his band play a minute of “Sweet Child O’Mine” and then led the crowd in a thundering chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, but before the venue’s tech guys really started getting ambitious with the smoke machines, and before a somewhat portly woman two rows ahead of me begins grinding on the railing of the VIP section with such intensity that I was tempted to take a Vine of it, a depressing thought comes into my head: In 100 years, will people still know who Pitbull is?
Many people would be tempted to say “No.” The vast majority of Pitbull’s modern hits are corny, he’s not a particularly nimble or creative on wax, and he dances like a dad and dresses like a bouncer at a nightclub. On the other hand, this is exactly why Pitbull is an American treasure. Pitbull doesn’t give a fuck that you think he sucks, and this is precisely why Pitbull is awesome. Yeah, lots of his songs kind of suck if you listened to them on headphones, but have you ever heard a DJ drop “I Know You Want Me” at a wedding? He’s got bigger things on his mind than being cool, because aiming to please the most people that you can with your music is cooler than being cool. He might not rap as hard as when he was making records with Lil Jon, but he’s a damn smart vocalist, letting the beats do the work and almost acting as a hype man for the intrinsic energy of the music. And while Pitbull may dance like a dad, at least he dances like a dad who means it.
It’s arguable that Pitbull—human piece of branded content, the final goalpost a music trend must pass before it can be declared dead, erstwhile ass enthusiast and current ambassador of all things abstractly “party”—playing a SXSW event is exemplatory of just how far the festival has gotten from being a week where a bunch of bands would come to down and play a bunch of gigs. It’s also arguable that people who think like that are wrong, because Pitbull is fucking sweet live and anything that gives people joy in this cold, unloving world is worth lauding.
Live, Pitbull is half man out of time, half man of the moment. Wearing all black, flanked by dancers as well as a full band with two (TWO!) drummers, his stage show has the look and feel of an old-school Vegas show put on by consummate entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Wayne Newton, which is placed into sharp relief by the fact that said band was recreating EDM beats for him to rap over. He’s not a rapper, per se—you get the sense that he only raps these days because it’s the best way for him to convey the abject jubilation about partying that he feels. When he dances, it’s with the panache of a gazillion-year-old man. There’s no way it should be cool, but it’s perfect. He snaps his fingers to the beat, he taps his toes, and smiles with the wattage of all the lightbulbs in all the dirty bathrooms in Austin. The dude lives to perform.
Now, I will not stand here and tell you to listen to a Pitbull album, or even actively search out a Pitbull single. Pitbull is an artist best consumed passively; in the club, on the radio, at a sporting event, whatever. His music’s main asset is not that it is great, or timeless, but it is consistently marginally better than any music that dares to be like it. Since the same machine manufactures roughly 85% of all pop music, I am wholly convinced this is because of Pitbull.
At a school talent show when I was 15, this kid rode a motorcycle onstage and then danced to a Chris Brown song. Every single kid in that auditorium lost their shit, and that same sense of “holy shit this is ridiculous I can’t believe this is actually happening” is what Pitbull brings to the stage every time he gets up there. At one point, he got behind one of his dancers and licked her neck. You can’t teach that type of showmanship. (Not that you would want to teach that, but in the context of a Pitbull concert, it’s perfect.) He seems shocked by his own awesome shamelessness, which spills over to the audience itself.
So, to return to the question I posed at the beginning of this review: Will people remember Pitbull in 100 years? Have you ever listened to a Pitbull song? He doesn’t care if you don’t remember him in a hundred years, or in a week, or even the next day. What’s important to Pitbull making people happy in the moment. That’s one of the most unique joys of music, and the ineffable passion for music that that feeling fosters iswhy everyone is down here in Austin for SXSW in the first place. Next time Pitbull is in your town, you need to make every effort to see him. Dale, motherfuckers. Dale.
Drew Millard's legs hurt from walking so much. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard