Heading down to the Mary J. Blige show last night at House of Blues, Hopper and I knew that it was some sort of event for Citibank, and that Mary’s set would be, according to her publicist, “short.” We showed up to find Citibank/American Airlines placards all over the place, proclaiming some ad-copy philosophy about how life is a journey — one we should presumably consider booking on American and buying with a Citi credit card.
Upstairs, after dealing with the HOB’s baroque security gauntlet, we nabbed a couple of spots in the special seating section. We weren’t supposed to be there, but our press passes looked enough like the VIP ones. For a while, anyway: after waiting around for another hour, looking at the photo of Mary projected on the screen in front of us and comparing notes on how much plastic surgery each of us thought she had done, we got booted. We ended up off to the side of the VIP area, behind three flamboyantly gay best friends. (It turns out that watching flamboyant gay men react to Mary J. Blige performance is roughly one-third of the entertainment value of a Mary J. Blige concert, so we were lucky.) Mary came out, shouting out Citibank right off the bat, surrounded on all sides by giant, backlit photos of her album covers and a collage of photos: toddler Mary, teenage project-chick Mary, more Marys onstage than members of her band.
They played “Real Love.” They played some of her not-so-hits. There was a boring stretch of midtempo songs that went on for too long. She didn’t play a lot of her hits, and she skipped a lot of the jams that you know would have slayed, but then music is only part of the reason that you go see Mary at a show like this. The main reason is to feel like we did: Oh my god that’s Mary J. Blige standing there 18 feet away from us. And she has a tear in her tights. The main attraction is Mary herself. Her between-song banter comes off like something you’d see on a late-night Tony Robbins infomercial, and just like with Robbins, Mary’s lessons are all about her. Rappers excluded, MJB is the most self-oriented lyricist in pop music; no one else so consistently, nearly obsessively, features so prominently in her own songs, to the exclusion of almost anyone else. She’s even sung about herself in the third person.
Between songs she talked about the kind of trials that every person — and specifically every woman — goes through, and she explictly connected them to the words she sang. But she also talked about her success, and the struggle she went through to attain it, and the problems it causes her in the same way — as if all of us in the crowd can relate to how hard it is being a wealthy, gorgeous woman. And somehow, most of us do. At one point she’s doing the realizing-your-potential seminar bit and she starts invoking the journey her life has been, the journey that we are all taking by being alive on this earth. That’s when I wondered how it is that she can manage to turn the tritest cliche into an emotional epiphany the way that she does. And I also wondered if Citibank gave her a bonus for working the event’s ad copy into her lessons.