The CES party circuit can help you understand the annual consumer technology extravaganza better than a full day spent prowling convention centers, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually fun. The Strip’s evening bashes are venues for hyper-focused expressions of brand identity, and they’re usually headlined by celebrities with little or no connection to the companies hosting the parties. Attend a few events away from the show floor, and you’ll find yourself drowning in lukewarm hors d’oeuvres and perfunctory, confused concerts. There are better ways to unwind after a day full of keynotes and product demos; one of them is sleeping.
I knew all of that going into yesterday, and CES still managed to surprise me. I watched one of 2015’s biggest hitmakers perform from a few feet away in a beautiful nightclub, but it’s not the Wednesday night performance I’m going to cherish. Instead, I’m going to remember the hour-plus I spent with Dan Halen, Jef Leppard, and the other middle-aged mercenaries that make up one of New England’s premier hair metal cover bands. I’m going to remember Mullett.
So many Chromecast Audio dongles plugged into empty boxes
My evening began with Google’s "content happy hour" at one of the Bellagio’s nightclubs, a space decorated by dozens of Chromecast Audio dongles plugged into functionless boxes and a bunch of neon signs advertising the company’s entertainment-adjacent products. The party kicked off with a lengthy, surprisingly coherent DJ set, but it wasn’t much more than a huge platter of appetizers preceding the musical main course: a headlining set from Paterson, New Jersey’s finest, Fetty Wap.
The crowd started to rush and clump in the middle of the show floor, and I caught a glimpse of blonde dreads and a 1738 chain. Fetty’s set lasted roughly 15 minutes, enough time to run through each one of his singles that hit the top 10 last year. If there’s a prototypical kind of cash grab party appearance, this was close to it: Fetty and Monty wandered through each song with the help of meaty backing tracks and crowd noise, and a confetti cannon coated everyone near the stage in sticky, white plastic midway through "Trap Queen."
There were a few diehards clustered in front of the stage, but most of the attendees stuck to their drinks and conversations while Fetty danced and sang, backdropped by the Bellagio’s fountains. I couldn’t help but think that Fetty and Google are an odd fit on a philosophical level. Google is a company with a finger in every pie, trying to reinvent the world on a dozen different fronts; Fetty does one thing really, really well, and it’s still unclear how he’s going to adjust when churning out iterations on the same core concept becomes stale. Conceptual congruity doesn’t matter much when you’re just trying to snag some cultural cachet with a decent party.
The two bashes couldn't be more different
A few hours later, I found myself at a restaurant deep within the Venetian for a party being co-hosted by Intel and Lenovo. In terms of both aesthetics and atmosphere, the two bashes couldn’t have been more different. Intel and Lenovo’s room felt bright and relatively spacious compared to Google’s dark, cramped nightclub. It was unabashedly product-centric: booths along the side of the room hosted heavyweight gaming PCs running Rocket League, and nervous attendees tiptoed around laptops of varying sizes and shapes with drinks in hand.
If there was a DJ at the party, he was well hidden; either way, the mix leaned on recent, corny classics. (An interstitial set climaxed when Salt-n-Pepa’s "Push It" led into a bass-heavy club mix of Andy Grammer’s "Honey I’m Good." This wasn’t exactly Boiler Room.) Of course, the biggest difference had to do with each party’s choice of live performers. Google gave its crowd 15 minutes of Fetty Wap; Intel and Lenovo gave theirs a 45-minute opening set of stompy sync-rock from X Ambassadors (you might know "Renegades"). Oh, and a crew of 40- and 50-somethings bringing the cover band thunder all the way from Shelton, Connecticut? Two hours.
In a week where everyone is always short on time and running around like chickens with their heads cut off, Mullett’s performance was remarkably generous, and their setlist was crammed with every goofy ‘80s rock song you can imagine. If a song involved giant, glossy manes, lewd gestures, or a live music video, you can bet Mullett played it. (Fetty Wap had an impressive year last year, but it’s hard for him to compete with a machine that scrapes the best songs from an entire decade. Mullett had hits — arguably hits better known to the average CES attendee — even if they didn’t actually write any of them.)
Intel specifically wanted an '80s cover band
I spoke to the band’s tour manager, who confirmed Mullett was playing CES for the first time. Intel was specifically interested in securing the services of an ‘80s cover band for the Lenovo event, and tapped Mullett through a production company; a Texas cover band called The Spazmatics, which focuses on new wave, was also under consideration. Even though they’re based in New England, Mullett aren’t strangers to Vegas: the band are regulars in the more humble venues of the Strip. (They’re not opening for Tiesto anytime soon.) They’re playing the Hard Rock on Saturday night before heading home.
I came into Intel and Lenovo’s party steeling myself for a weird, thoroughly sad affair, and in the moments before Mullett’s performance, things were at an all-time low. Greying tech employees in business casual were grinding to Jason Derulo, their hips coming dangerously close to the expensive electronics around the room; hordes of men in blazers and jeans were fist-bumping and leering at everything in sight; a roadie’s ass hung out of his pants like a pale crescent moon while he tuned Mullett’s drums. It was bleak, so you can imagine my surprise when the band proceeded to drive the crowd — which was packed, by the way — into a frothing frenzy.
"There are some good-looking girls at this Lenovo party, Teddy Lee!"
The room was alive with the glory of hair metal: people were throwing up horns, crushing beers with abandon, and generally acting like paid extras in a Mötley Crüe video c. 1987. At one point during a spirited rendition of "Pour Some Sugar on Me," a woman stormed the stage, shed her jacket, and invited lead singer Ron Jovi to engage in some mimed PG-13 sugar pouring. (From that point forward, every song featured a few people climbing under the rope to dance in front of the band.) The musicians of Mullett were technically prodigious, charismatic, and comfortable with rehearsed lechery. "There are some good-looking girls at this Lenovo party, Teddy Lee!"
When I finally managed to scrape myself away from Mullett after a ripping take on Rick Springfield’s "Jessie’s Girl," I felt like I understood CES in a way I didn’t before. You only need to spend a few hours here to grasp the sheer size of the event: it’s a technological bacchanal, one that can easily swallow you. It took me a little longer to understand the social multitudes CES contains. It has room for social climbing, wining-and-dining, and the kind of stereotypical "networking" that’ll make anyone roll their eyes. But it also has room for cross-country co-worker reunions and pure, unabashed fun — the kind that’s miles away from any sort of social posturing. I felt the pressure that comes with seeing and being seen while watching Fetty Wap on Google’s dime. I can’t say the same for the hours I spent rocking out with four paunchy experts well versed in Whitesnake and The Outfield. After taking the temperature of both events, I think I know a little more about the people and companies that help bring CES to life every year.