On Wednesday night, 17,000 people flooded into Madison Square Garden. There were countless Rangers jerseys, scores of Strong Island's finest haircuts, innumerable pairs of Uggs, two tattooed Southern boys with megawatt charm, a magician, and me. Screens around the rim of the Garden projected images of a green card table while Justin, the first magician I'd ever seen wear a bicep-hugging t-shirt, flipped cards to the melody of a Katy Perry song.
Just about everyone else in the crowd wore cowboy hats.
Justin the magician—hired by some genius aware of the waning attention spans of concert attendees—did a solid job of distracting of the twitchy crowd in between acts. While two women with Kate Gosselin hairdos took a selfie at the Garden balcony's glass barrier, Justin turned over cards to a pop-inspired playlist that changes rapidly with his hand movements. He pulled up all red cards when a song referenced the color red; he stacked 8-6-7-5-3-0-9 to Tommy Tutone; he slapped down all diamonds as Rihanna warbled from the speakers.
The last time I was at Madison Square Garden was to see the Harlem Globetrotters "play." On Wednesday I was there to get doused in good times magic, courtesy of Southern pop-country duo Florida Georgia Line. The woman next to me clapped excitedly at Justin the magician's big conclusion, and when I smiled at her enthusiasm, I realized I was clapping too. More shows should have breaks for magic, I thought.
I didn't go to see Florida Georgia Line—the massively popular, Nickelback-endorsed pop country team made up of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley (casually known as T-Hubb and BK)—as some mean-spirited or ironic prank. I genuinely enjoy the laidback country-fried music Florida Georgia Line makes, and have tried without avail to convince more prestige-inclined friends (see: snobs) of the duo's merit. FGL's best singles—there are at least six, if not seven or eight—are just as gratifying and just as easy to consume as any saccharine pop song with a smart hook. They install themselves in your head, lower your heart rate, and serve as a pleasant reminder of The Good Times. And not just in that major-chord melody way—almost every FGL single directly references either relaxing or partying or both.
Still, this February—undeniably the worst month of the year—following a particularly paralyzing cold snap, on a Wednesday in Manhattan's Garment District, where even hell goes to die. The bikinis, sunshine, and drink in my cup felt very far away. Far away and as hard to imagine as the "hell raisin' heat of the summer."
In a row ahead of my seat, which was lodged deep in the farthest right corner of the vast Garden, three men in fleece vests and plaid button-downs asked me to look at their printed-out tickets to determine if they were in the right place. They couldn't figure it out themselves, a confusion made steadily worse by alcohol. I looked into their forlorn faces and explained that yes, they were in the wrong place and their seats were on the other side of the aisle. "We can stay here though, right?" one of them asked, a tall cup of beer sloshing and wavering in his hand.
"Well, someone might come and start trouble with you," I responded.
"If it's girls, I could take two girls," he said. After deliberating and yelling to no one, the three men pushed off to wherever their tickets tell them to go. No one filled the boys' abandoned seats, which was great news for me, as it gave me a much clearer view of the FGL performance. Not that it mattered; the same screens that projected Justin's impressive feats of card-flipping were crisp and bright and easy to see from any angle.
"You ever seen Florida Georgia Line before?" the 20-something man seated to my left asked me. His name was David. "First time," I tell him, explaining I might write about it for my job.
"Wow, you have the best job ever." David is an environmental engineer ("believe it or not!").
"I got into them big because of a friend of mine who lives in Dayton, Ohio," he explained. "It's not the South but it's real Southern there." David added that though I'll have fun tonight, this was not the best environment in which to see a country concert. The real blowouts were in the summer, when you could tailgate, "from eleven until night."
"11 a.m.?" I asked.
"Hell yeah, it's fun." David's brother chimed in, "Coming here, you can only really drink on the train." The brothers had come in from Long Island. "The best part is that everyone at country concerts are so friendly," David said. I had to agree. Even during the minimal interactions I had with people on my way in, I felt far more welcomed than I had at, say, a Limp Bizkit show. There had been no tension while chatting with strangers, though I found it difficult to hide my shock at the number of people in the New York City metropolitan area who are this dedicated to country music.
"What brought you here tonight?" I asked a woman in a forest green plaid shirt while waiting in line for a beer.
"I loooove Florida Georgia Line," she said, flipping a blond mop of expertly layered hair in my direction. I didn't say it out loud, but over and over, I was thinking "Man, me too."
Here is an incomplete list of things that Florida Georgia Line loves: Moonshine. Tan legs. Flip cup. Drake. Bikini tops. Chevy trucks. Church. Fireball whisky. Levis. If you care about this kind of thing, it can't be understated how important cultivating brand loyalty is to Hubbard and Kelley. Like any artist, the duo's image, lyrics, and vibe (a distinct frat brother-cum-mechanic hybrid) are integral to the maintenance of their own brand. Like to drink? You'll love Florida Georgia Line. Love to relax? Hey, there's a country duo you should hear. Worked up a sweat and looking forward to a night in the back of your Chevy with your blonde-haired, tan-legged sweetheart and a bottle of Fireball™? Then you were likely one of the 17,000 people in New York City who decided to spend upwards of $60 to see that image projected back at you on Wednesday night.
Homogeny and consistency have made Florida Georgia Line very successful. In 2013, their debut album Here's to the Good Times was the sixth bestselling album in the United States. Five of its songs (almost half!) reached a top five spot on the Billboard country charts. Their followup album, Anything Goes, which came out in October of last year, had three singles in a top-ten spot and it sold over 200,000 records in its first week. "Cruise," the group's best known song (and a track which rapper Nelly later added remix verses), is the best selling country digital download ever. Seven MILLION people paid to download that song. Though unknown or dismissed by near-entire coasts of effete music fans, Florida Georgia Line is fucking huge.
On stage, T-Hubb and BK wore the same pants: Diesel brand, slim fit, leather. Hubbard's were topped with an embellished rectangular buckle, while Kelley's were hoisted up with a simple studded belt. Both men wore more jewelry than I ever could: they were decked in necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, plus a huge watch on Hubbard's left wrist. They appeared buoyant and friendly, occasionally flashing coy smiles at the crowd or at each other. Their good-ole-boy charm was on display in spades—it works; the crowd was thrilled. The boys are backed by a full band, but together they have an easiness that's contagious. They frequently embrace each other in a man-you're-my-brother kind of way, slapped backs and all.
The screens, I quickly learn, were not simply for us nosebleed warriors to better see the two singer-slash-musicians. The screens project sweet vignette videos and animations that, much like a Disney singalong VHS, show the words to every song Florida Georgia Line play. Their music is simple and easy to remember, but something about this karaoke setup made it hard not to love them even more. If the most fun you can have at a concert is singing your heart out, broadcasting what a true fan you are, then every single person at Madison Square Garden was having the time of their lives.
When the duo got down to the business of playing "Dirt" (a ballad that reminds us both of where come from and where we go back to), Hubbard talked about his dead father. He asked the crowd to sing loud enough that the man will hear it up in heaven. The moment shakes me out of my good-times hypnosis. I take a breather to go get a beer.
"What you know about them country boys, New York?" Tyler Hubbard smirked at the crowd, right before erupting into a rendition of "Round Here," an expository track about how Southern boys "do things," which mostly includes twisting off the cap of a bottle of Fireball whisky and passing it around to friends. At the end of the song, Kelley helped himself to a sip from a Fireball bottle that emerged from the air. As he put back the shot, the bottle's branded label faced brazenly toward the camera.
The surprise of the night wasn't the duo's stage presence, nor their ability to woo a massive crowd of New Yorkers on a bitterly cold night in the middle of the week. The brilliance of the feelgood Florida Georgia Line show is in the sheer number of bangers they are able to pump out. They never slow. FGL's discography barely spans five years but their live show is like listening to a greatest hits album in the flatbed of a truck in the back-forty of a farm plot. Even for someone who works indoors all day and who has only been in the flatbed of a truck once, their power is surprisingly hypnotic.
"Last night, we had dinner with the owner of Madison Square Garden," Hubbard said, spinning a yarn so thick with self-effacing platitudes it almost—almost—rubbed away his Southern boy facade. "We told him, 'Be careful about our fans. Our fans are the best because number one, they are loyal; number two, they are living life; and number three, they party their asses off." Later on, Hubbard made sure to remind the crowd that they sold out Madison Square Garden: "I don't think I imagined that we'd have 17,000 people in one room in New York City." I guess I never did either.
In the time between Florida Georgia Line's walk off stage and their encore, a spontaneous USA chant rippled through Madison Square Garden. With no magician to entertain the audience this time, flagrant patriotism was the next best thing. When it petered out, a man two seats down from me yelled, "Let's get the USA chant back!"
The duo rejoined the show with their ode to relaxing, "Sun Daze." They sauntered onstage in Rangers jerseys and swim trunks. I closed my eyes and think about summer. I'm pretty sure everyone was.
"Everybody in here is like, 'That's not country music! What them white boys doing?'" Hubbard mimed as the two broke out into a rendition of Dr. Dre's "Forgot About Dre," followed by a convincingly rowdy version of "We Dem Boyz." Surprisingly—and often cringingly—much of Florida Georgia Line's success is owed to their hip-hop infused lyrics and lifestyle. At some point during the show, Hubbard and Kelley rapped along to several rap hits from the early aughts; Hubbard informed the crowd that he and BK used to "make mix tapes off of Napster."
Considering that the duo had come out on stage to Drake's "Started From the Bottom," the medley of covers the duo performed then isn't all that surprising to the crowd. And when I looked over to my right, even the one mom in Uggs who remained seated the whole night seemed to be enjoying herself.
The show ended, predictably, with their undefeated hit "Cruise" and some stringy crepe-paper confetti that was—of course—red, white, and blue. Kelley and Hubbard were gracious and humble: they thanked the crowd a number of times before they embraced each other for the thousandth time. They walked off the stage arm in arm, Hubbard with his shirt off and his sweaty deltoids surging. I can't remember a time when I've been so thoroughly numbed and entertained.
On my way out, I attempted to slide through a porous crowd waiting angrily for a clogged escalator, but a fight between two women broke out in front of me.
"Bitch, stop grabbing me!" a woman in a straw cowboy hat yelled, arms flailing.
"Hey! Hey! NYPD. Back off!" A man in street clothes interjected, pulling the two women off each other while a few people snapped photos on their iPhones. I sneaked down the adjacent stairwell and made my way out to the cold city street.
[Image via Getty]