The most important moment in recent television music history did not happen on MTV or American Idol.
It wasn’t the debut of a highly choreographed video or judged by B-list celebrities. It didn’t happen at an awards show or during an interview on Oprah’s OWN network.
Last Tuesday, Frank Ocean chose Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to perform the television debut of his song Bad Religion , where he was accompanied by house band the Roots and a string orchestra.
The 24-year-old – young, black and a member of the infamous rap group Odd Future – sang of unrequited same-sex love on network television in front of a live studio audience.
“I couldn’t make him love me,” he crooned, and then Fallon came out and gave him a hug.
As hosts go, Jimmy Fallon isn’t the funniest guy on late night (Jimmy Kimmel), he isn’t as smart as Conan. He doesn’t, I don’t know, own as many cars as Jay Leno.
But his show has become a consistently thrilling destination for music happenings, providing an environment that encourages acts to push themselves, experiment and have a little fun. As a result, it’s become something of a factory for viral YouTube videos, rivalling even his comedy alma mater Saturday Night Live.
“His enthusiasm for music makes the performances seem like more than tacked-on segments in which the host’s main role is simply to point his arm and step back,” wrote pop culture critic James Poniewozik in Time. “I can’t say Jimmy Fallon is The King of Late-Night yet. But he’s got a good beat, and I can dance to him.”
Part of Fallon’s ability to draw some of the biggest acts in contemporary music is, I suppose, the dearth of other options. MTV has forsaken musicians for pregnant teenagers. Music award shows are desperate to draw viewers and so must go heavy on crowd-pleasing, tween-friendly acts. And talk shows with desirably young and savvy demographics, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, aren’t really about music, although they occasionally attempt to be.
Saturday Night Live is still a big stage, but the show’s weekly musical acts seem only to make news when they bomb. Ashlee Simpson became infamous after a technical glitch revealed that she was lip-syncing. And Lana Del Rey did two songs in some sort of spaced out paralysis, confirming the Internet’s suspicions that she was more hype than hit-maker.
Late Night, in contrast, seems to reliably bring out the best in performers, even those who might be considered past their prime. The night after Ocean’s debut, Fallon hosted Tom Waits, who absolutely destroyed a performance of Raised Right Man. He was so energized by the atmosphere that the grizzled singer didn’t look a day over 120.
Part of the magic is, as Poniewozik rightly points out, Fallon’s undeniable fanboy enthusiasm.
After Raised Right Man, he squealed: “Heavens to Murgatroyd – Tom Waits everybody!”
He enjoys music so much that it’s hard not to enjoy it too. In June, he pulled off a major feat by making the ubiquitous summer anthem, Call Me Maybe, seem fresh again, performing it backstage with Carly Rae Jepsen and the Roots using classroom instruments. Watching him belt out the chorus, you couldn’t help but admit that it really is a catchy tune.
But Fallon also has the ultimate musical sidekick in Roots front man Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson. The guy is described by almost everyone he’s crossed paths with as a musical genius, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all genres of music and an ability to push established acts into experimenting with exciting new arrangements of their work.
It was his idea to back Ocean with classical musicians, and he was likely behind the seamless integration of more than 53 hip hop songs into the three part performance called The History of Rap, which Fallon performed with Justin Timberlake.
Because Questlove can keep up with everyone from Ice-T to Charlie Watts, musicians seem eager to prove themselves and willing to experiment. They are having fun and it shows.
With backing by The Roots, musical numbers are unlikely to fail. They also provide the backing for the popular segment Slow Jam the News, which has featured guest appearances by news anchor Brian Williams and U.S. President Barack Obama, who enjoyed himself so much that he got all gangster and dropped the mike.
Questlove has become an essential ingredient to Late Night’s success, contributing more than any nodding sidekick, and the network clearly knows it.
He received only a mild public spanking last year after he led The Roots in playing a Fishbone song called Lyin’ Ass Bitch as “walk on music” for Republican politician Michele Bachmann.
While The Roots have used the show to make jokes via their music, Fallon has also proven that he is a comedian with some serious musical chops. In June, he released his second album of comedy music, a compilation of songs first performed on the Late Night stage. He covers Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair, in character as Neil Young, accompanied by the real Bruce Springsteen. And he’s joined by none other than Paul McCartney on Scrambled Eggs, billed as an early version of the Beatles song Yesterday.
The album sold 15,000 copies its first week and debuted at number 25 on the Billboard chart.
But Fallon is still more influential as a venue than an actual musical act. On Tuesday night, Questlove took to Twitter shortly after Ocean’s performance to offer an update on the musician’s album sales.
“Awesome that Channel Orange was number 5 on iTunes at midnight,” he wrote. “Mins after his Fallon performance its now #1.”
THE CRITICS SPEAK
It says something that there are various sites, including Billboard, that countdown their favourite musical performances from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Here are a few popular picks.
Secretly pregnant with Jay-Z’s child, Bey chronicles the ways she loves her man. When she’s done, Coldplay’s Chris Martin is in the audience to give her a standing ovation.
Neon Indian Polish Girl
Fallon doesn’t just showcase established acts. He’s unusually hip to emerging talent, demonstrated by his enthusiasm for geek synth band Neon Indian , who were accompaniment of a pretty rad video installation.
Odd Future Sandwiches
Like its member Frank Ocean, Odd Future chose Late Night to be the venue of their TV debut. As the web site stereogum.com noted, “You could feel the air tighten in that studio,” as Tyler the Creator and his freak posse tore around the stage.
Stephen Colbert Friday
Dressed in a tuxedo and unveiling an impressive country twang, the fake news anchor broke into a passionate rendition of the viral Rebecca Black hit, accompanied by The Roots, with a pyrotechnics display, natch.
The Doors sing Reading Rainbow
Have you ever wondered what Jim Morrison would have sounded like singing about a very hungry caterpillar? Fallon delivers an impressive approximation of the Lizard King for the Treehouse crowd, leather pants and all.