In one sense, this is a story about Dan Wham. Dan Wham deals with "all of the real estate in Delaware." Dan Wham likes "all types of music." Dan Wham splits a cab with me and my girlfriend after Florida Georgia Line and Nelly headline the BB&T Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey on a Saturday night in June. He takes us to a bar in Philadelphia, just over the Delaware River. He tells us that Philadelphia 76er and giant basketball man Joel Embiid will probably be there. He refers to him simply as "Joel."
Joel is there. He is in the restroom.
"Trust The Process," shouts one restroom user.
"Legacy, my ass," shouts another.
"While I'm pissing?" Embiid responds, pissing.
Soon after, I meet one of Dan Wham's friends. ("He's from London," Dan Wham shouts, pointing at me, over the Seinfeld theme that's inexplicably coming from the DJ's speakers). This new friend insists on buying me his favorite shot from the bar, something minty, but the bar is out of that, so he comes back with three ounces of tequila and thrusts the glass into my hand. Dan Wham wants us to smoke weed and drink some more at his apartment after, but it's 1 AM, I don't smoke weed, and I can't stand up now anyway. It's a shame. Florida Georgia Line and Nelly would have wanted me to stay up and smoke a little, drink a little, spend some time with the boys, hang with guys like Dan Wham.
The BB&T Pavilion is an outdoor arena that holds 35,000 people and at least one Guy Fieri food cart (closed tonight) among its eateries. In open air, it smells like the river: salty, dirty, damp; when you find a cluster of people, it smells like tailgated Coors and mid-June dude-sweat.
A few rows behind the pit, the middle-aged man in front of me in a dirty white T-shirt sways drunkenly back and forth while his wife dances more capably to his side, occasionally pausing to prop him up. Nelly is onstage now, and he's playing "Party People." I knew that Nelly would be here tonight—it was his name that pushed me over the edge when I thought, "No, Alex, you can't spend this much money on Florida Georgia Line tickets, that's stupid, you have to pay rent"—but it still feels strange. He should be holding up the top of festival bills, not opening for a pop-country act in Camden.
I, however, am an idiot, and Nelly is clearly smart. Here he is, in a flannel shirt cut off at the shoulders, playing to 35,000 people, working the audience. "I'm talking about the people who have been here since DAY ONE," he says to his two hypemen in a clearly scripted segment 20 minutes in. "I don't think they understand DAY ONE." That brings on a mid-set triplet of "Air Force Ones," "Country Grammar," and "Ride Wit Me," none of which imply "here since DAY ONE" so much as "ALIVE IN THE YEAR 2002." The choreographed banter is sickly, but it works. The swaying man in front of me has started to find something of a rhythm in his gut now—maybe helped by the FGL hat-wearing, goatee-rocking dude who's turned up next to him—and he's throwing devil horns at the stage with his right hand. When he's not throwing the horns, he's slapping his friends' asses.
At the bar, for $19, I buy a margarita with a small, plastic, pink cowboy hat on top to hold my straw. I get strange looks from a man in a Bush-Cheney '04 baseball cap. I immediately buy a large Budweiser to make it clear that the pink cowboy hat drink is not for me.
I should explain why I—a grown-ass man from London—am here, in Camden, New Jersey on a Saturday night, double-fisting $36 worth of sour mix, tequila, and corn syrup, recovering from Nelly's set, excited to see Florida Georgia Line.
I first heard FGL's "Cruise" four years ago while sitting in a dorm room with two friends at a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. There was a pile of cocaine and a student ID on a hardback copy of The Odyssey on the bed. "Oh baby," one of my friends said. As far as I remember, that's all he said. He just said, "Oh, baby" and then turned "Cruise" up so loud that I wouldn't have been able to hear him talk either way. The cocaine disappeared; the Nelly-featuring remix came on.
"Cruise" hit like a stupid puppy too excited to control its oversized paws. The four-bar intro was just the chorus without drums; the lyrics came out with a thick southern twang that sounded like a parody of itself. It didn't really mean anything: "Baby, you a song." The rhythm guitar sounded like it'd been borrowed from Nickelback, and the lyrics seemed to have been stolen from the third-most sensitive frat boy on the quad.
Over the course of that weekend, my friend kept playing "Cruise" whenever we found an aux cord. After three plays, I thought it was dumb; after ten, I took a Totally Ironic shine to it; after 20, I was grabbing the cord for myself to play "Cruise" on repeat. After a week, I was sitting in bed and listening to the song, trying to convince myself that I had some cool detachment but eventually realizing that it was more than that. I picked apart the lyrics. "Ice cold beer," "long, tan legs," "lift kit." It was still extremely dumb. I kept listening.
I played the remix more often than not. I replayed it and committed it all to memory. I'd start shouting lines at people at seemingly innocuous moments. We're driving to get tacos? "I can see you got a thing for the fast life / So come on shorty, let me show you what the fast like."
Over the next three years, the song lost me some friends. Back in the UK, I'd play it at every house party and gathering. Nobody liked it. When my friends tried to wrestle the cord back from me, I'd become indignant, standing with my arms stretched out to my sides like an ill-dressed Jesus, protecting the phone behind me. I'd play the original for a moment, then pause it, much to everyone else's relief. Then I'd play the remix. I'm not sorry.
I know and like other Florida Georgia Line songs. I know and love other pop-country songs, too. But "Cruise" remains the pinnacle. It's still a big, dumb puppy kicking me in the face, completely unaware of the horrors of the world, obsessed only with licking its own balls. I still play it at every house party and gathering, and I'm sure I still encourage people to hate me as a result. And it's still worth it.
I've spent the last two years in New York, and I'm moving back to Europe for a while in a few weeks. I didn't want to leave this country without seeing "Cruise" live. That's why I'm standing behind this hammered, sweaty, devil-horn throwing dunce who can no longer slap an ass without the action throwing him completely off-balance and back into his exasperated wife's elbows.
When the curtains falls, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelly are standing in front of eight sky-pointing flamethrowers and a band seemingly handpicked from a country-pop casting agency. They've split the aesthetics neatly: Hubbard's the frat boy, his flat-brimmed baseball cap turned backwards and a black wife-beater stuck to his glamor-muscle-only torso; Kelly is the hometown boy, a cowboy hat shadowing his eyes, a patterned turquoise vest hanging over his shoulders.
None of that fucking matters, though, because there is so much fire coming from the stage that I can feel it on my face 50 yards away while I stand dumbfounded, unable to dance or drink my now-warm beer because there's too much to process. For example, Florida Georgia Line are a boy band. It's embarrassing that I never noticed that before—they have a song with the goddamned Backstreet Boys—but I always figured they were just overproduced pseudo-singer-songwriters. Hell no. They bop around the stage guitarless, Kelly dragging his right arm around and occasionally snapping, like a high school quarterback selected for a lead role in that year's performance of West Side Story. Hubbard ambles around the middle of the stage with a thin, Republican grin that looks slimy to me but apparently has the ability to send the ass-slapping, horn-throwing man's wife into a trance. (Maybe she's just willing to scream for anyone she doesn't have to keep stable at this point).
Everything is meticulously engineered. "Anything Goes" is a phony party song with drawled "c'mon"s and "yeah baby"s in the background already, so nothing needs adjusting live. "Smile" is a banjo-led night-on-the town singalong directed, a little too overtly, at one mighty lucky gal— "All I want, is just to see you smile / That pretty little smile"—but here it's pitched at the crowd. Replace "girl" with "Camden" and it's a mission statement: " Girl I just want to make you dance / Give you the best night you ever had / Oh, and girl I want it bad, bad, bad." The sexual overtones only help.
Things threaten to settle down during mini-medley or small-town ballads: "Dig Your Roots," "Dirt" and "H.O.L.Y," but the absurdity only multiplies. They wheel out a white baby grand piano for Hubbard to play through "Dig Your Roots," and I only realize halfway through that I can't hear the piano—nobody can hear the piano. I think he's making contact with the keys, but I can't guarantee that there's any piano wire under what he'd definitely refer to as the "hood." During "Dirt," he wears a guitar strap that says "DIRT" on it. It's hard not to fall in love with that. For all the semi-serious cases I made for this band's excesses while guarding the "Cruise"-playing iPhone, they're best when they're making dewy-eyed plays at earnestness.
This set is also an exercise in branded content. The duo have created their own brand of whiskey—Old Camp—and the big white curtains that dropped 80 feet from the rafters at the start of the set had two large Old Camp logos on them—a howling wolf with two pine trees silhouetted on its neck. Halfway through the set, before "Sun Daze," the band announce that they want to get a little tipsy, and a bottle of Old Camp appears—just appears, without anyone noticing—on stage.
(I've never tasted Old Camp whiskey and that makes me sad. I am comforted only by the following blurb on oldcampwhiskey.com: "Tyler & BK pushed the envelope on this one–taking inspiration from their innovative fusion of country, rock, hip-hop and pop–to create a whiskey that's truly unique." What does hip-hop taste like exactly? What's the flavor profile of "pop"? Can we drink country? And who was inspired by this fusion anyway? Was it the band themselves? Did Tyler & BK's innovative fusion inspire Tyler & BK? [Holy shit, he calls himself BK?]).
"Get Your Shine On" and "This Is How We Roll" close out the main set, and they're both silly, elated, Chevy-referencing, shot-swilling, pop-rock diamonds with banjos in the background to remind you that, guys, hey, y'all, c'mon, this is country. I sing them both and swig the last of my beer.
I grew up watching The Simpsons and Friends and listening to Blink-182 and Dr. Dre and Bob Dylan and The Distillers and fixating on the Chelsea Hotel and treating America like a complex fantasy—the way that more literary kids fantasized about Narnia or Middle Earth or Hogwarts or whatever. And it's still that, even now that I've seen it all in chaos, with all of its needless injustice and exasperating bullshit up-close. Music can do complex, profound things to a human brain, but sometimes it just transports you somewhere cool for a minute. In this case, somewhere with ice-cold beer and KC lights, whatever they are. If you're lucky, you get to live out a song's nonsensical half-truth for a while and still come out blasting it at every house party.
The lights go down and come back up a minute later. Central Casting's Bro Country Players are back, but Tyler and BK are gone. It's just Nelly smiling at the drummer before dropping into "Hot In Herre." Shit. Nelly didn't play "Hot In Herre" in his first set. And now here's Tyler and BK, fistbumping and swaggering around to it. The drunk man in front of me tries to twerk. His wife doesn't care now.
Nelly stays on stage. Tyler and BK sling their arms over him in a series of stilted, broey embraces and the intro to "Cruise" slinks out. The song still doesn't mean anything—no more than a blend of country, rock, hip-hop, and pop means anything to the flavor profile of a whiskey. It's just a smattering of my basest instincts, written over some market-researched power chords and America's nervous self-assurances. It's big and dumb and perfect.
Outside, we try to figure out how to get back to Philadelphia. We split a cab with a guy in his early 30s, who introduces himself as "Dan… Dan Wham." We both laugh, but it's quickly apparent that he's not joking. He's realized I'm foreign and that Kate is from the West Coast, so he makes sure to get his pitch right: "You guys want to drink? I know the best bar in Philly."
"Great," I say, a little worried about the kind of establishment that Delaware's self-proclaimed most powerful real estate agent might frequent. "No way I can leave without seeing that."
Alex Robert Ross can see you got a thing for the fast life. Follow him on Twitter.