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Culture / Entertainment

Zedd Gives Selena Gomez a Rodeo Song Moment, Turns NRG Stadium Into World’s Largest Nightclub

Beat Maker Maestro Creates Plenty of Fireworks in Houston

BY // 03.09.19
photography F. Carter Smith

An electro house DJ might not be your typical Houston Rodeo act. But then, Zedd isn’t your typical DJ.

The Grammy winner isn’t your average life-of-the-party beat maker, with a heavy set of headphones slung around his neck and a bro persona. He aims to please but he’s not a people-pleaser — his set list doesn’t shift with the crowd’s mood and energy.

Zedd’s particular, a perfectionist, a planner. When every single strobe light, every single burst of pyrotechnics is queued up to a specific second of a specific song, there’s little room to improvise.

It makes Zedd a bit of an anti-DJ disc jockey. But where better to buck convention than the Rodeo?

It’s pretty safe to say the high-tech, state-of-the-art stage’s perks had never been pushed to the limits the way they were Friday night at NRG Stadium. From song to song, Zedd’s light show skirted the edges of sensory overload.

The Russia-born, Germany-raised producer, frequent pop-songstress collaborator and former metalcore drummer had a Rodeo crowd of 54,959 eating out of the palm of his hand. Even though he was fist-pumping, beckoning, pointing. You get the idea.

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Zedd said “jump,” but the crowd didn’t say “How high?” Instead, they showed how high they could.

And it’s not like he didn’t participate. Zedd was in a constant state of motion, nodding, bouncing. Over the course of an hour he proved himself more pogo stick than person.

He also commanded “Sing!” throughout the evening in his perfect American accent. The DJ said it so abruptly, so quickly, it came off clipped, somehow shorter than a single syllable. But it definitely got the message across.

And there was plenty to sing along to — whether it was Zedd’s own hits like “Clarity” and “Lost in Japan,” or his riffs and remixes of everything from “Seven Nation Army” to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

Zedd’s Rodeo Magic

Regardless of your taste in music, you have to agree that the signature Rodeo star-shaped stage’s elaborate introduction before every night’s concert, with its sci fi-style Mission Control panel, graphics and fireworks, never made more sense than it did Friday night.

But it was barely a hint of the visual hyperdrive that was to come. When the stage unfurled, it revealed a darkened platform and otherwise empty stage.

Bursts of colors thrummed on screen, one after the other, red, blue, yellow, on and on, set to the light, hollow tones of a marimba or xylophone. Then, a slight silhouette stepped up onto the dark stage, sporting the unmistakable outline of a cowboy hat.

The lights came up, and the screen changed to a stream of overlapping, supersaturated lines with butterflies flitting by.

“What’s up, Houston?” Zedd shouted, literally springing into action, jumping up and down with both feet.

The crowd sprang up too — and the vast majority of them never sat back down.

zedd cowboy hat (Photo by F. Carter Smith )
This was probably his one and only chance to wear a cowboy hat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith )

The scruffy producer took the cowboy hat off and smoothed his long hair behind his ears.

He seamlessly shifted into a remix of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” with images of the American flag projected on the screen and red, white and blue spotlights scrolling the stadium. He took a sip from a red Solo cup right before the bass dropped.

A Giant Dance Party

No one in the crowd had a single shred of self-consciousness. When everyone to your left, right, front and back is dancing alongside you, that makes sense.

Fireworks went off, one after another. What was saved for finales of other rodeo concerts was just part of Zedd’s warmup.

Then, the stage was bathed in blue. The music started picking up, Zedd nodding, waving his arms like a conductor. Only he was conducting the crowd.

“I Want You To Know” started, and Zedd shouted “Let me see your hands up in the air!” The catchy song was famously recorded with his former flame of half a second, Selena Gomez. Most people don’t even want to hear their ex’s name. But hearing his ex’s voice didn’t seem to deter the DJ in the slightest.

The song’s the perfect example of what makes Zedd stand out in a sea of swaying DJs — aside from his central premise that DJ’ing is his platform, but above all he’s a musician. And shows are essentially carefully choreographed and executed pieces of theater rather than simply concerts.

“I Want You To Know” isn’t all thumping beats and sudden bass drops. It’s immersive and kinetic, but it’s not aggressive. It’s a more melodic type of electro-pop or EDM.

You could say the same of “Stay,” his smash hit with Alessia Cara that played a few songs later. It’s the tightly controlled, catchy beats but imminently singable, whether you’re driving in your car or dancing in a pounding, light-filled stadium before 10 pm.

The next one, a refreshing remix of “Time of My Life,” also begged for a sing-a-long.

When his own recordings came up, like “Starving” with Hailee Steinfeld, Zedd would light up a little more, mouthing along to the lyrics. It was also during those songs that the meticulous musician would get a little ahead of himself and start jumping before the music changed, like he knew something the crowd didn’t.

His songs built on one another, one blending into the next. But the lighting for each song matched its energy, with green spotlights playing gently over the crowd for the chorus of “Don’t You Worry Child” before strobe lights flashing toward the end.

For “Stay,” the screen filled with a desert image, all craggy rock formations scraping burnt sienna skies. The whole stage was monotone, with orange and white spotlights. But as the song built, and the crowd got louder and louder, the screen changed — the rocks started crumbling and spiraling down, and the spotlights started scattering across the stadium.

During “Lost in Japan,” Zedd had the audience hold both arms high, swaying from one side to the other, like an EDM cheerleader directing a mindless human metronome.

But there was one hiccup, one letdown. Zedd teased a “Bohemian Rhapsody” remix. He directed everyone to hold their lighters or cell phones up, and everyone did. But what started as two single spotlights on the stage turned to an amazingly synced show set to the Queen classic, different lights pulsing and flashing for different vocal parts and instruments.

“Let me hear you!” he shouted. The song played, untouched and unchanged, for several minutes. But when it got to “For me, for me, for me” the last syllable extended on and on, the spotlights went stark white and then: a completely brash, rough bass-drop and some ensuing music that was completely disjointed.

There was recovery with “I Love It” and “The Middle,” his most recent hit to dominate the rodeo for weeks and weeks on end.

zedd screen (Photo by F. Carter Smith )
It was as much a time to look as it was to listen. (Photo by F. Carter Smith )

Only the last song of the night, “Clarity,” was met with more energy. It’s the one that put him on the map seven years ago, with good luck ever since. The screen accelerated from images of fire, to rain, to ice, to sparks, scintillating pixels.

But then it went black, and a few lone spotlights trained on Zedd.”You guys are crazy!” the producer shouted. And the crowd proved there were as the song came back full force. “My name is Zedd, and I love you!”

Fireworks burst off from one point of the stage to another, shooting up sparks and plumes of smoke — for maybe the eighth or ninth time that night.

It was a little bit extra, but he earned it. It takes a special kind of talent to turn NRG into a nightclub.

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