Let's start with the text message I sent to half a dozen of my closest friends on a recent Saturday night:
Sent: Sat, Jul 7, 8:05 pm
I AM WATCHING SALT N PEPA DO SHOOP RIGHT NOW LIFE GOALS COMPLETELY MET GAME OVER
That's right. It was 2012, I was at the Tulalip Casino, and I was standing in a crowd of people dancing and shouting along with every single word of "Shoop" while actual Salt-N-Pepa shooped it up onstage. To make the scene crazier, they were only the openers. (Which: WTF?) The bill for the sold-out evening was, and I still can't say this with a straight face, Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue, and Boyz II Men. Go on, take a minute. Let it sink in. I saved the wristband as proof, after wearing it for five days. It's still on my nightstand.
Let me back up: My love for Salt-N-Pepa is the sort of full-throttle, boundless adoration that comes close to zealotry. I rediscovered them in a bargain bin at Value Village years ago, where I bought Very Necessary as a nostalgic-for-the-'90s joke. Now I listen to it weekly. Theirs is a funny, frank feminism that somehow, through a layer of goofiness, reads to me as the closest music ever comes to the way my female friends and I actually talk about sex and life and gender dynamics. You know what is an automatic pick-me-up after a shitty street-harassment moment? Piping "Somebody's gettin' on my nerves/Forget that you're a lady and give 'em what they deserve!" straight into your ear holes. And no song laughs harder in the face of slut-shaming than "None of Your Business": "How many rules am I to break before you understand/That your double standards don't mean shit to me?"
Kelly O and I are racing down the freeway toward Marysville, both wearing as much neon pink as we could find in our wardrobes. When we pull into the casino's enormous parking lot, the sound of screaming and cheering is already coming from the pavilion, and as we walk up, I stop. "THAT'S THEM," I tell her breathlessly, breaking into a stumbling jog. Inside, we find a sea of the most breathlessly open-mouthed euphoric people, and onstage, S and P.
They're both in their 40s, and they look amazing. Pep's swinging about three feet of hair around, and they're dancing so hard they'll have to towel off multiple times. They stop at one point to give a heartfelt speech about how long they've been friends and to encourage the audience to forgive old grudges. "Sometimes it just means having the difficult conversation," they advise. Salt brings her husband onstage so she can sing "Whatta Man" directly to him—but after one verse, Pep stops the music and says that's "cute" but "I ain't married. I got a babydaddy—okay, a couple of 'em... [but] I need a good man, 'cause I've been through some things." She proceeds to scan the audience for a "mighty good man" to join her onstage and ends up dancing the rest of the song next to a paunchy older white guy who looks as happy to be up there as anyone could. Where they used to describe a guy as "body like Arnold, with a Denzel face," they now sing "body like Barack."
They eventually have to finish (with "Push It"!), and we turn our attention to the blissed out and, we suddenly realize, decked out audience. There are some outfits. The shoes are insane—purple suede, studded leather, six-inch stilettos. There are also people dressed like the era these bands came from—side ponytails, New Kids on the Block T-shirts. There are plenty of couples, both romantic and mother-daughter dates, but the best are the all-girl posses. We go looking for the finest crew and find Julie, Jill, Danica, and Kami.
These ladies are just outside the beer garden, in the most committed '90s getups. Julie has one of her overalls straps off, Jill has expertly curled her bangs into a pouf and is wearing a B.U.M. Equipment sweatshirt tied around her waist, Kami has a Blossom hat, and all four of them are hilarious. "I drove seven hours for this," shouts Jill, from Moscow, Idaho, who also tells me when I ask where they got their Boyz II Men VIP backstage passes: "They gave them to us. They were like, 'If you don't get your picture taken with the band, it will be a travesty.'"
En Vogue only has a few hits, so they fill much of their set with a playlist themed "Basically Every Good Song Ever." They do a disco medley—"Got to Be Real" into "Bad Girls" into "Ring My Bell." They sing "Respect," "Proud Mary," "Tell Me Something Good." We run into a friend who says she can't stop to talk because she got her period and "I'm bleeding all over myself! OH, WAIT!" Her eyes get huge as the strains of the En Vogue hit "Don't Let Go" hit her ears. She looks at us, makes a quick calculation, cocks a hip, and stays.
This crowd is diverse, age- and race-wise, but universally in thrall, in a haze of giddy appreciation for the ridiculousness and awesomeness. You couldn't find an ounce of ironic detachment here if you tried. People start treating one of the aisles like a runway/dance floor and come sauntering up it in groups, dancing and laughing. In between En Vogue and Boyz II Men, a guy gets onstage and proposes to his girlfriend. She says yes.
Boyz II Men come out in a cloud of smoke, in all-white outfits—duh—and the crowd goes apeshit. One girl sings along with "Down on Bended Knee" on one knee in the aisle; another girl hugs her friend and cries. People are swaying, singing, hands in the air. In the back, people are slow dancing or full on eyes-closed making out. It's a middle-school dance full of grown-ups. At the end of the night, ladies carry their crazy-tall shoes and walk barefoot.