Photos by Neil Van.
A few months ago, I was on my way to Havana, Cuba, listening to local artists on a few burnt CDs that our tour guide Cristina found in the car. She explained to my friends and I what the lyrics meant and which artists were more popular. At one point, she turned around and asked us if we knew Camila Cabello, the singer behind the “ooh-na-na” song. Before we could get a word in, Cristina immediately recited Cabello’s entire history; how she emigrated from Cuba to the United States as a child; how she joined and left one of the biggest rising pop acts in the world; and how she is now a force to be reckoned with herself. There was such pride in Cristina’s description of Cabello and what she accomplished as an immigrant, a singer, a woman, and as a Cuban-Mexican.
The conversations about representation in the music industry are as pervasive as ever, which is why Cristina’s reaction regarding Camila Cabello struck me so deeply. Simply talking about the state of the industry is one thing, but hearing the impact from someone with cultural ties to an artist reminds you why representation matters. People are given something to celebrate, and more importantly, they feel seen, which is needed more than ever in the current socio-political climate. I imagine several from Cabello’s fan base, who came out in full force for her sold-out show at the Sony Center in Toronto, identify with her story just as deeply as Cristina, in several ways.
Those narratives lent themselves to different aspects of the show, which really
felt like an arena production presented in a smaller venue. A video depicting Cabello walking out of a room and into different sensory experiences, with a voiceover touching on the need to find new things and come into your own as a person, guided the hour and a half set and helped segment performances. There was a group of exceptional backup dancers who shimmied and shifted effortlessly from contemporary to hip-hop to salsa, with Cabello often joining the choreography. Of course, there was that voice, distinctively hollow at the beginning of “Never Be the Same”, confident to a tee on “She Loves Control”, and unabashedly pop on “Into It”.
After all, Camila Cabello came into this world at the young age of 15, raised in the eye of a Spice Girls second coming, and made the brave departure from the Fifth Harmony zone just four years later. She clearly learned a thing or two about pulling together a show that doesn’t just satisfy, but entertains, and even inspires.
Yet, the meticulous planning of every beat, note, and step was as much a fault as it was a credit. Though her words on identity – from her tributes to her hometown of Miami, to her advice on being true yourself – were weighted, it felt like she occasionally missed the mark on taking advantage of a smaller scale venue because things were running too smoothly. It didn’t even require Shawn Mendes, who was backstage during the show, to make a cameo A dash more of interactions and off-script anecdotes would’ve done the trick. . Her future will be plotted with many nights in larger places that will need specific levels of guidance.
Fan responses kept things balanced. During an intended silent moment of ‘In the Dark’, someone from the back croaked an “I Love You!” with great difficulty. Fans were invited on stage for “Real Friends”, with one confidently grabbing the mic to harmonize with Cabello. When she covered the Major Lazer-produced “Know No Better”, the mix of teenagers, parents, and little ones in the audience collectively decided that dancing at a Camila Cabello show is really the only option at hand. Even when given a note that said #TorontoStrong, a nod to the 10 victims of the recent van attack in midtown, Cabello said, “I love that!”, and the cheers became deafening.
Then, of course, came “Havana”; the song that shaped the last quarter of 2017, and had the world store “ooh-na-na” on the tip of their tongue. The one that showed the how easily Cabello could shed the days of girl group past and grow into her solo identity so naturally. The single that prompted Cristina to ask my friends and I if we knew and liked Camila Cabello. “Havana” was just as fun and infectious as you’d hope it be, but it also helped you appreciate how Camila’s breakout as a solo artist, her heritage, and her place in the pop landscape all intersect into something really promising.
The Latin pop-tinged production, ballads, and fluid vocals make Camila Cabello’s debut Camila a very easy listen, without it ever tiring. Realized live, it’s easy to see why Camila is destined for stardom, and is better off plotting her own moves. She’s running for the crown – and it fits.