PHOENIX — With ice on both ears, Justin Timberlake set out to prove that on his own he can accomplish the mission that was set for ’NSYNC — to generate a little respect for pop.
On Wednesday, the crowd at the sold-out America West Arena turned the venue into a balls-out dance club for the opening night of Timberlake and Christina Aguilera’s Justified and Stripped Tour. The fans, most of whom were women in their late teens and early 20s, screamed at Justin and Christina’s every move and word. (Click for photos from Christina’s and Justin’s performances.)
Aguilera’s set began with images of her on a video screen showing her distaste for tabloid rumors and gossip. She ripped off each piece of clothing — an obvious homage to her album title, Stripped. When the curtain dropped, the songstress strutted out, inadvertently, perhaps, doing her best Cher imitation — big curly black locks, a black and hot-pink halter with belly-baring plunging neckline, pants and spiked heels — for the opener, “Dirrty.”
The concert was Aguilera’s first major chance to show off her more mature image and lyrics, all of which the crowd ate up. Fans sang along with songs from Stripped as well as stripped-down versions of older songs like “Come on Over (All I Want Is You).” The 22-year-old, sounding like a seasoned veteran of decades, called the song one that she took “out of the closet, dusted it off.”
“Thank you so much for coming. … I have not been on a stage like this in a long time. I’m getting that feeling again and it’s a blessing,” Aguilera said. “Yes, I’ve grown up a little bit. Now I’m 22. … I’m so happy you’ve grown with me.”
Her set focused primarily on her vocals and backup dancers and included several remixes of her hits. For the Egyptian-turned-metal version of “Genie in a Bottle,” Aguilera rolled onstage tied to a giant “X” (that’d be for her nickname, X-tina) with hot pink straps attached to her outfit. She slowly unraveled herself as the “genie” in her song provocatively danced her way out of the bottle.
The “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack cut “Lady Marmalade” was a playful romp between male dancers dressed as sailors and female members of the troupe in lingerie. She changed into a silky empire-waisted red dress to channel her favorite singer, Etta James, for “At Last” and the sultry “I Prefer You.” A male dancer ripped off her skirt during a Latin number, to which she saucily responded, “Just because my album name is Stripped, it doesn’t mean you can take my clothes off.”
Although she claimed her sexy, multipierced new image represents her “true” self, she seemed most at ease wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with “God sees no color” for the closer, “Beautiful.”
While Aguilera’s set focused on her supernatural voice, Timberlake showcased his beat-box and dancing talents. Clearly the crowd favorite, Timberlake began his set with the lighthearted disco hit “Rock Your Body.”
When he yelled, “What’s up Phoenix? Did you come here for a good time?” his vocals were barely audible over the screams. “We got some crazy people in the crowd tonight,” he responded. “I’ll be your host for this evening. I’m gonna test your knowledge a little bit with this one. Let’s see if you can spot this one.”
His stage banter served as a segue to a funked-up “Gone” and “Girlfriend,” the only two ’NSYNC songs of the night.
Timberlake was personable and chatty with the audience. During the Spanish-flavored “Senorita,” Timberlake recruited the men in the audience to turn to the women and say, “It feels like something’s heatin’ up. Can I leave with you?” And the women responded, “I don’t know what I’m thinking ’bout, really leaving with you.”
Musically, the songs took a more dramatic turn thanks to his live band. “Cry Me a River” made use of heavy percussion and marching-band beats instead of mere drum loops. Before the song ended in a shower of pyrotechnics, Timberlake pointed to the end of the stage, from which a mic popped out for him to beat box into. For the next 10 minutes, he swung over the main floor via a catwalk, which moved none too smoothly. He seemed relatively nervous, perhaps because it brought flashbacks of a Spinal Tap-like incident at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan, when he was stuck suspended over the crowd as the rest of ’NSYNC “flew” back to the stage.
He wrapped up the almost four-hour show with the Michael Jackson-inspired “Like I Love You.”
Kicking off the night at 7:30 p.m., the Black Eyed Peas took charge of the stage and main floor. Apl.De.Ap tried to get the crowd to bounce while jumping on a seat near the stage, but stumbled and fell into a woman in front of him. Otherwise, the set was strong, with the group — and new member Fergie — rolling out material from its forthcoming album, Elephunk, due in stores June 24. The set included the very un-PC “Let’s Get Retarded.” Will.I.Am offered a disclaimer at the end of the song: “We mean no disrespect to persons with disabilities. It’s just about having fun.” The Peas closed things out with their current hit recorded with Timberlake, “Where Is the Love.”
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.