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Air Force glad to serve as concert's backdrop

In "a win-win situation,' Ricky Martin's performance helped the Air Force reach its target demographic.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2001


TAMPA -- Of all the incongruous images Super Bowl week gave us, this might have been the weirdest: pop star Ricky Martin singing in an Air Force hangar.

Celebrities, football players and NFL executives milled admiringly among stealth jets and fighter planes at "Ricky Martin's Super Bowl Saturday Night," a live CBS broadcast from MacDill Air Force Base.

By serving as backdrop to the MTV-produced concert, the Air Force hoped the august compound that was prominent in the Gulf War would inspire recruits to join the force and imbibe its values of grit, sacrifice, discipline and tradition.

And there was Martin, the latest disposable god in the ever-shifting pop pantheon, bucking in his tight leather pants, a preening, swivel-hipped ad for unbridled self-love, a man who forbids close-ups when his makeup isn't perfect.

What was he doing there? To whom did this make sense?

Well, to the Air Force, for one. "It's a win-win situation with the musicians and the Air Force, because they get a unique venue for their performance and we get an effective way to reach a particular audience," said Capt. David Englin, who works in Air Force public affairs at the Pentagon.

When producers approached the Air Force about the show, Englin said, it recognized the public relations potential. With a vast viewership of 18- to 24-year-olds, many drawn by emcee Carson Daly of MTV's Total Request Live, the Air Force saw the concert in Hangar No. 3 as a terrific way to reach its target demographic.

As years of economic propsperity have broadened the range of career choices for young people, the military has had to ratchet up its efforts to meet recruitment goals. "It's getting harder and harder," said Englin. "We need to be a little more aggressive in how we recruit."

As part of that push, the military has struggled to forge an appeal to a generation fiercely protective of its individualism and, according to market studies, resistant to taking orders. The Army's new ad slogan, "An Army of One," has been accused of disingenuously touting the individual, hardly a reflection of regimented military life.

"Bait-and-switch," Professor Charles Moskos of Northwestern University in Illinois calls it. "The slogan there is sort of, "Be All We Are Not.' "

Moskos, a leading military sociologist, is similarly skeptical of the Air Force enlisting Ricky Martin, directly or indirectly, as a recruitment tool. "It does seem like a contradiction, and a kind of mixed message," said Moskos, arguing that what Martin's public persona reflects -- hedonism, narcissism and selfishness -- directly conflict with military allegiance to duty, honor and country.

Such recruitment efforts, he believes, reflect the military's confusion regarding its standing in society. Reminded that Elvis Presley's donning of an Army uniform once served as a matchless recruitment tool, Moskos responded that Presley and the man who sings Livin' La Vida Loca are different cases. The King actually enlisted and served honorably.

The military must be pragmatic, said Professor David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who has studied military recruitment practices. "(The concert) is on the same order as saying, "Gee, our recruiters have to go to the mall because that's where kids hang out," he said.

During Super Bowl week, MacDill also played host to celebrity golf and an NFL party, though the Ricky Martin concert drew the greatest hype.

Although it allowed the hangar to be used for the concert, the Air Force did not pay to produce the show, and the aircraft on display were already on the base for a training mission, said Englin, the Air Force captain. The concert was closed to regular MacDill personnel.

As a prelude to the concert, in which he sang Livin' La Vida Loca and She Bangs, Martin was supposed to parachute out of an airplane with the Air Force's elite jump squad, a chance for the force to flaunt its best and a chance for Martin to demonstrate that leather pants do not preclude guts.

Millions of television viewers saw Martin in the plane, then watched as the camera cut to him peeling out of his jump suit on the MacDill tarmac and swaggering to the stage. What was clear to concert-goers was not necessarily clear to the TV audience: It was faked.

"It was a creative thing we did for the show," said Englin, the Air Force captain.

The Air Force, which considered it too risky for Martin to jump onto the hard tarmac at night, had scheduled the singer to do it Friday during daylight on a field of soft grass.

Martin didn't do that, either, canceling several hours before the jump, telling the Air Force there was a scheduling conflict.

- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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