The lights were spastic, casting hues of purples and reds across the night sky, while crane cameras swooped overhead and choreographed dance numbers and guitar solos unfolded onstage. If it weren't, you know, for all the folks in camouflage, strapped with M-16 rifles, or the arid desert backdrop, or set dressing that included HUMMVs and armored personnel carriers, it would be impossible to ascertain that this spectacle was going down just 15 miles from the Iraqi border. But a taste of the familiar was exactly the mission of Operation MySpace, a massive musical gift to about 5,000 men and women serving their country, the vast majority of whom were just days away from deployment into active duty in Iraq.
For the acts involved -- Jessica Simpson, Filter, Disturbed, the Pussycat Dolls, DJ Z-Trip, and host Carlos Mencia -- the gig was equal parts unforgettable and awkward. After all, it's not like they were playing to large numbers of their own fans that bought tickets explicitly to see them (although they were playing to hordes of fans online via MySpace's live HD stream). So while the talent toured the base in the preceding days, participating in spectacularly unique experiences like weapons training, riding in Blackhawk helicopters, sleeping in barracks, and grabbing chow in the mess halls, there was a palpable sense of confusion among the soldiers about the performance ahead:
"Which band is that tattooed dude in?"
"Is that Tom from MySpace?"
"Is the girl he's with actually in the Pussycat Dolls?"
"When can I meet Jessica?"
Not surprisingly, then, the assembled mass of troops -- mostly Army and National Guardsmen making their last stop before heading north into Iraq for year-long tours -- received the acts with vaguely lukewarm responses, but erupted in the most familiar moments: Disturbed's hit "Down with the Sickness," Filter's "Hey Man, Nice Shot," and the Pussycat Dolls singing, well, just about anything, as long as the dance moves were dead sexy. Not nearly as popular: canned messages played over the sound system from Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and, especially, Hillary Clinton.
Jessica Simpson / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
And there were moments that embraced the setting, some feeling a little more contrived than others. Jessica Simpson planted herself amidst the crowd in an attempt to serenade the troops, but mic difficulties forced producers to abort the segment. It might have done Jess some good: She'd been grilled in the media in recent days over this trip, with rumors about her performance fees and handling requirements undoubtedly causing her grief, although they didn't seem to reach us on the base.
Filter's Richard Patrick and Sgt. Frank Cavanagh / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
More genuine: the onstage reunion between Filter's Richard Patrick and bassist Frank Cavanagh, who was in the band from 1996-2002 and is now enlisted in the Army and scheduled for active duty in Iraq starting in a few weeks. Cavanagh popped onstage with a bass guitar strapped over his camouflage and launched into the song-starting bassline of "Hey Man, Nice Shot" with fervor, much to the delight of the troops.
Comedian Carlos Mencia / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
Of course, there were some less delightful elements, like the frequent cuts to pre-produced video segments that only the viewing audience at home could see, most of which featured footage of the artists and troops mingling on the base in the days preceding the show -- couldn't they have sprung for a video screen? Carlos Mencia ably fill the dead air with some of his dirtiest bits, but it was certainly odd for the onstage banter to continually hype that "we're doing this for the troops" before cutting to video that no one on the base could watch.
But one element certainly prevailed, that being the troops' undying appreciation that these artists chose to come to Kuwait in the first place, and that MySpace helped make it all happen. MySpace's Tom Anderson -- you know, your first friend -- was as big of a celeb as anyone on base, taking loads of photos and signing autographs.
Tom of MySpace talking with the troops / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
And he, like the rest of the talent, seemed completely engrossed in the experience, by the candor and chipper attitude of the troops, and by the newfound appreciation for the jobs done by these men and women. No matter your political preference, it was impossible not to be moved by the soldiers' own shock-and-awe campaign that targeted us, the outsiders, encouraging us to spread the word about their lives and -- something that was repeated to me often -- get more bands to come and play for them overseas.
Filter frontman Richard Patrick / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
Sgt. Cavanagh soaks it in / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
Disturbed / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army
The Pussycat Dolls / Photo by Specialist Richard Del Vecchio, U.S. Army