Fear And J.Lo In Las Vegas

Jenny from the block makes a bid for immortality on the Strip

Jennifer Lopez announced last week that she’s returning to Epic Records, the label where she made her biggest hit album, J.Lo, back in 2001. I wonder if Lopez ever longs for the Bennifer years — a more innocent time of baroque music video budgets, for-profit album releases, and shiny, shiny stagewear. Between the new/old record deal, the network TV show she stars in, and the one she executive-produces, J.Lo may be too focused on the everlasting present to dwell on the past. Even All I Have, her month-old Las Vegas revue, is a case study in how J.Lo collapses time: It leverages nostalgia to make a very convincing argument for the continuing relevance of Lopez as a global sex symbol who savvily foresaw the future of Humans As Brands. Walk in skeptical of Lopez’s strategy and feel your doubts blow away in a misting of Glow by J.Lo.

Old-guard stars playing lavishly set-designed career retrospective shows is a Vegas tradition that performers like Elton John and Celine Dion carry on today. Meanwhile, bottle-service EDM DJ residencies like Calvin Harris's and Diplo’s are now as much a part of Vegas’s entertainment ecosystem as ventriloquists, showgirls, or French-Canadian circus performers. When Planet Hollywood granted a residency to Britney Spears in 2013, it created a new niche. Young adults can follow their TRL nostalgia to Vegas and watch late-millennium stars like Spears and Lopez give their own catalogues the greatest-hits treatment. Playing Vegas is both a legacy move and a tacit acknowledgement that their biggest years may be in the rearview. But Lopez, one of the hardest-working entertainers in show business, has always resisted the idea that aging leads to planned obsolescence. For a pop star, she was a relatively late bloomer.

After hustling as a Fly Girl on In Living Color and a backup dancer for Janet Jackson, Lopez broke into acting in the mid-1990s on quickly canceled network shows with names like Second Chances, South Central, and Hotel Malibu. Her first breakout role was in Gregory Nava's Mexican-American family saga Mi Familia, followed by the female lead in Money Train. In 1997, she played Selena Quintanilla in the biopic Selena, also directed by Nava. There was controversy before filming around the fact that Lopez, a Nuyorican from the Bronx, had been cast as the Texas-born, Mexican-American Queen of Tejano Music. Nava defended his decision. Ultimately, her performance was praised by critics and Selena became an iconic biopic.

Lopez followed Selena with the trilogy of Anaconda, Oliver Stone’s U Turn, and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (still the Lopez film most often cited as proof that she squandered enormous promise as an actress through her subsequent choice of roles). But you can’t blame her for taking $9 million to star in The Wedding Planner, which made her the highest-paid Latina actress of all time. And while her decision to pursue a career as a pop singer baffled people who saw her as a potential Oscar winner, it was a savvy decision for the longevity of her career as a celebrity. She traded her shot at A-list stardom for something more personable and pliable, a kind of generalized fame that let her excel in any arena she chose — acting, singing, dancing, fashion, perfumery. Las Vegas is the land of ninth lives, but Lopez, at 46, might be more in tune with pop cultural trends than ever. Her 1999 Europop-styled hit "Waiting for Tonight" anticipated the EDM boom; her 2011 Pitbull-assisted hit “On the Floor” was a victory lap around the club. She introduced square mainstream America to big, sexy asses and makeup contouring years before Kim Kardashian became a household name.

Her overall brand is aspirational, but she’s never been afraid to go downmarket; anyone can buy a J.Lo tee at the mall or a bottle of Glow at Walgreens and feel close to her. (She’s earned a reported $2.2 billion for Coty since launching her fragrance line in 2002.) Like many a modern movie actress who’s aged into the limbo between ingenue and grand dame, she’s made the move to TV, but she did it on the wildly entertaining NBC dirty-cop procedural Shades of Blue. Making a network show at a time when dark cable dramas are in artistic vogue is another counterintuitive choice, but it’s pure Lopez again — her accessibility is her superpower, and not everyone can afford premium cable. She has built an empire and is purportedly worth over $300 million.

Planet Hollywood sits in the middle of the Las Vegas strip, right next to the Paris casino’s faux Eiffel Tower. It was once the site of the Aladdin Hotel, where Elvis wore cowboy boots and a black silk tux to wed Priscilla Presley in 1967. As Planet Hollywood, the building’s exterior is plastered with digital signs that look like Internet banner ads floating in space. Inside, it’s unobtrusively Tinseltown-themed, in keeping with current Vegas trends. There are photographs of random famous actors and actresses adorning the walls, but other than that it's a black hole in which all roads lead to candy-colored gambling machines and endless rows of card tables.

The night Lopez’s All I Have opened in Planet Hollywood’s AXIS Auditorium, I rode in an elevator plastered with images of Spears and Lopez to the mezzanine level. A large framed portrait of Gina Gershon — patron saint of glitzy Las Vegas camp classic Showgirls — hung over the red-carpet area. I’d been wondering if any of Lopez's A-list comrades would show up for her Vegas debut. I pictured an impromptu Out of Sight reunion with George Clooney, or maybe Diddy or Ben Affleck, bearing a thousand roses and begging to reunite. Instead there was a beggar’s banquet of available celebs: Wilmer Valderrama, Rebel Wilson, and Hoda Kotb. Wilson and Kotb mugged and sang “Jenny From the Block” for a camera crew, and I died a little bit inside from embarrassment. (I did find out later that the large cloud of people fanning out over an unseen presence were scrumming around a bleached-blond Justin Bieber.)

The lobby was outfitted with glass-cased artifacts from Lopez's initial peak of fame, including The Green Versace Dress, whose wild popularity as a search engine term after she wore it to the 2000 Grammys led Google to create Google Image Search. Inside the theater, people were dressed all over the formality spectrum in classic Las Vegas style — plenty of glittering bandage dresses and stilettos, but also tourist t-shirts and fanny packs, the new Vegas crowd rubbing elbows with the old. There was a surprisingly high turnout of elderly men.

Current pop hits like Bieber’s “Sorry” boomed, and giant gold lights on the proscenium floor spelled out "J.Lo." The house lights dimmed and an announcer alerted us that taking photos and videos during the show was "highly encouraged," before suggesting some J.Lo-related hashtags we might want to use. A pre-recorded spoken intro played, and then the curtain rose, revealing Lopez in the first of a series of skintight, jewel-encrusted nude body stockings, wrapped in a white feather cape, like some angelic superhero. The set was straight out of Liberace’s wildest dreams, complete with a huge mirrored staircase. I immediately pictured myself falling all the way down it, if I were in Jen’s heels. But Lopez is a pro, and she made her way down without a hitch, as "If You Had My Love" kicked in and then flowed into "Love Don't Cost a Thing."

She segued into the first of a few interesting song choices: "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do" from Bye Bye Birdie. The geriatric couple across the aisle were as stoked on this development as I was. Her entire set was dotted with tributes to Vegas stars past, connecting Lopez's legacy to that of performers like Birdie (and Viva Las Vegas) star Ann-Margret. The dancers surrounded J.Lo for a Fosse-esque '60s-styled dance routine, proving Lopez can truly do it all, including the frug.

Like many a pop spectacular, All I Have is broken down into themed segments, with each new backdrop nostalgically invoking a different decade. Lopez reappears riding a subway train — the 6, naturally — in pink, sequined drop-crotch pants and matching Yankee cap. I whispered to my seatmate, “What if Ja Rule showed up right now?” As if summoned, he did, so that he and Lopez could recreate the Murder Inc. remix of “I’m Real,” a high point of the early-2000s golden age of the pop-rap love song. I wondered what Ja Rule had been up to in the decades since I’d seen him last; I could only conclude he’d been waiting in the wings of Planet Hollywood the whole time, like the Phantom of the Hip-Hopera. When the song was over, he slipped upstage and disappeared into the wings; I swore I heard the wind whisper It’s murdaaaaaahh.

After a brief break during which the background dancers took center stage, there came a vignette that can only be accurately described as "J.Lo dancefucks furniture." In a strapless blue satin femme fatale gown with matching gloves, she seduced a wooden chair, then stripped to a corset to ravish a chaise longue. These routines showcase her unbelievable body and skill as a dancer but also make a strong case for her late-era catalogue — "I'm Into You," from 2011's Love?, and the DJ Mustard–produced "Girls" stand up alongside her earlier hits. The brief interpolation of “Hotline Bling” mixed into the should've-been-a No. 1 "Booty" showcased the strength of All I Have as a live event: It's fun to be there. Lopez enacts an onstage camaraderie with her backup dancers. She was a backup dancer once, too, and no matter where she goes, she remembers where she came from. Lopez’s story is every dancer's fantasy — plucked from the chorus to become a star — with a Horatio Alger twist: Lopez made herself the star she is today through hard work.

Ballads are not especially Lopez's wheelhouse, and the show kind of grinds to a halt when she stops dancing in order to sing two of them. She dedicated "Feel the Light," from the soundtrack to her Dreamworks movie Home, to her two children, then introduced the next song as the one she sang to them in the womb. Never in a billion years would I have predicted this song would be Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” further proof of how strong the Y2K nostalgia runs at this show. A brief take on Debra Laws’s “Very Special” sets up the show’s title song, the “Very Special”–sampling “All I Have.” Then there’s a segment celebrating Lopez's Latin-music crossover stardom — a cover of Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz's "Quimbara" that leads into a cover of "¿Quién será?," the Mexican mambo hit made famous in America in 1954 as the anglicized "Sway" by Vegas legend Dean Martin. (Lopez’s recording of the original appears as a bonus track on her 2007 Spanish-language album Como Ama una Mujer.) The rapid cycling through style and genre are in keeping with her dynamism — the bilingual All-American around-the-way girl. Lopez resists classification, and her triple-threat status is a large part of that. This sort of robust entertainment is what we expect from Vegas: A glamorous star who can act, dance, and sing is really a nostalgic throwback — an old-fashioned kind of star-as-star — someone superior to mere human beings.

As for the singing? Well, a lot of it sounds live, although there are clearly backing tracks to help out. Like Madonna's or Britney Spears's, Lopez's vocals are primarily there to serve the beat and provide a strong dose of her personality. Lopez always sounds utterly human, which helps ground her persona in a realness. Like Mariah Carey, Lopez grew up in New York during the era of freestyle music, and understood early on that rap and dance music were twin branches of the same 808-watered tree. The Vegas show’s last segment is a jubilant Studio 54 tribute — Lopez floats in on a giant glittering moon (minus the coke spoon, naturally) in a silver, long-sleeved robe over a catsuit and hat, looking like a discofied version of Raiden from Mortal Kombat, as the green lasers familiar from the "Waiting for Tonight" video begin to sweep the room. I had my doubts as to whether Pitbull would show up — Mr. Worldwide might be the only person on earth busier than J.Lo herself. There's no sight of him during "Dance Again," and his prerecorded voice introduces "On the Floor." But just as his feature verse is about to start, the tiny, glistening form of Pitbull pops out of a hole in the stage like a flailing animatronic robot and everyone screams one last time. ¡Dale! It's a perfect end to a quintessentially Las Vegas show — like sinking into an infinity hot tub filled with sequins.

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