Upon walking into The Fillmore in downtown Detroit, one is greeted by many vestiges of the past. An illuminated marquee lined with individual light bulbs juts out from an ornately decorated facade. Inside, geometrically pieced archways soar over the grand atrium, and individually numbered exit signs are collages of stained glass. History lines the concert hall: Medieval-esque suits of armor guard columns teleported from Ancient Rome and vivid murals depict animals on the Earth uninhibited by the existence of humans as party lights change colors overhead.
However, the hundreds of people occupying this space a few Fridays ago were in attendance to bear witness to artifacts arguably more notable than all of the above: Disney and Nickelodeon musical TV hits from the 2000s.
The conjurer that revived these songs of yesteryear for the ears of today was Matt Bennett, the actor best known for playing Robbie Shapiro on the Nickelodeon teen sitcom “Victorious.” Now almost a decade removed from his claim to fame, Bennett is 30 and stays in the public eye through a patchwork of one-episode acting gigs, down-credit film roles and posts for his millions of steadfast social media followers.
And so emerges iParty (a play on the Nickelodeon title iCarly, another Nickelodeon show that starred Bennett’s contemporaries), a coast-to-coast tour featuring millennial Bennett dancing around on stage to the sounds of his glory days and hoping his audiences will do the same. Recalling legacy touring acts such as Dead & Company, what new he brings to the table is largely the old.
My friend Kathleen first proposed the idea of attending the Detroit iParty while sitting in Martha Cook dormitory’s Red Room, sipping the traditional weekly tea. Our friends from high school, Isabel and Sabino, would soon be visiting Ann Arbor for the weekend, and the DJ set would serve as our Friday night activity.
I initially hesitated to say yes, thinking about my lackluster lyrical knowledge of the music Matt Bennett would play. Growing up, my family had cable television only intermittently: for the week of the Super Bowl or as a free trial every few years. My current familiarity with the content at hand came from Sabino’s car speakers, weaving our friend group through strip-mall parking lots, or playing “All I Want is Everything” at near-deafening volume while speeding down the interstate. Sabino named his car Ariana after the Nick-turned-pop star, whereas I had thought it was just a fun name for a vehicle.
Though I had to make up for lost time, I hoped that this newfound immersion in what was once commercially front and center would prove socially useful, and it largely has. Though references to specific Victorious episodes may go over my head, I understand mentions of “The Slap” (“Victorious”’s social network) and Trina Vega’s comically bad singing from the soundtrack of these high school suburban escapades.
I remained on this plane of semi-fluency as all four of us rode in Ariana toward downtown Detroit. The sky was already dark when we left Ann Arbor, so we only saw the lights in the distance as we approached the city. Given that we were in a similar arrangement to that of a few years ago in high school, the conversations that emerged were inevitably about the past. We talked about how our eleventh-grade English teacher had recently become assistant principal and how Sabino’s brother is already a high schooler. We recounted recent run-ins with former classmates and gossip about romances new and old.
Where are our fellow high school alumni now? If they were to ask the same about us, would they guess we’re waiting for a Matt Bennett DJ set?
By this time, we parked Ariana in a surface lot near the Fillmore, and evening-enhancing substances emerged from the front row’s center console. “Maybe we should prepare,” someone said, and the ongoing pop-adjacent Spotify playlist is abruptly interrupted by the iCarly and Victorious crossover episode theme song. We danced in the car seats by shifting shoulders and overly contorting our faces to the lyrics, full of now-trivial teenage drama. A few more songs, and it’s deemed time to go.
The line of people we added ourselves to after exiting the fog-windowed car was filled with those that look like us: late-teens to early twenties, arriving in couples or as groups of friends. Some wore period garb (layered camis and patterned tops, colorful high top Converse sneakers), others dressed as Disney or Nick Characters specific characters (think “Victorious”’s Mr. Sikowitz or “High School Musical’”s Troy and Gabriella).
Isabel wishes aloud that the concert was 21-plus rather than 18, before realizing that I’m still underage when we receive neon-colored wristbands: one for admission and one for the bar.
I’m not offended because I understand the sentiment. Acknowledging the existence of those younger than you is an unsettling feeling; hearing that someone was born in 2005 rather than 2001 somehow feels impossible. We cope with it in many different ways, even while still being a part of Gen Z ourselves: We belittled those younger than us by calling them “cute” or acting dramatically disgusted by their presence. The sentiment partially carries into adulthood, though social rules convert loathing to a more muted aversion. While in line, we might simply smirk at an 18-year-old with their parents, oblivious to our own realities a few years ago.
We are rescued from the cold autumn night by the warmth of The Fillmore’s atrium, and the vibrations within the plush red carpet indicate the music has already started. Our tickets are scanned by an older woman, and we enter.
“Have fun in there.”
Given the age of my concert companions, the first stop is the bar. We looked at the special drinks sign, which appeared to be drawn up in Microsoft Word. Sabino, Kathleen and Isabel each ordered a different $12 cocktail, and the cups were passed around in a circle to taste. Only Kathleen’s drink, the “Wahoo Punch,” was enjoyable. The alcoholic allusion titled “Rex Powers” and the generically named “iDrink” became unwanted weights in our palms.
We walked down the aisle toward the standing section, the golden wristband looped around my left arm serving as a visual reminder of the choice I made to be there. When I bought my ticket, I charged an amount to my debit card that made my eyes wince.
In front of us was a projection of the music video to whatever song is playing. Though frequently these are songs from Disney’s Hollywood Records or a nostalgic Kesha throwback, recent hits like Harry Styles’s “As it Was” violated the collective understanding that we were dancing in the year of 2012.
After examining the DJ on stage, Kathleen and I exchanged comments about how Bennet’s appearance has changed over the years. His hair was longer, less curly, bleached blonde. He seemed shorter, skinnier, with sleeves of tattoos rising up his arm. He’s traded out his bold black glasses for clear frames, and his voice has burrowed further up his nose.
Perhaps it’s the quickening of age we feel in the room. Like an insect’s compound eye, what’s on stage is duplicated hundreds of times on the phone screens in front of us, with some faithful recorders posting the entire concert to Snapchat or Instagram Stories. Whereas a day was simply a unit of time when “Victorious” was at its peak, now, 24 hours is all it takes for these videos to be gone, and the distance between past and present will feel like an expanse.
We might examine Snapchat memories from four years ago with laughable security, now being on the other side of so-called glow ups, with new wardrobes and experiences to show for it. But finding these niches in identity marks maturity and therefore age. Are these enough of a trade off for exiting the vanguard of youth? And if Matt Bennett looks this old, this unrecognizable, then how should we interpret ourselves?
Twenty minutes into the set, the man who we thought to be Matt Bennett is actually just the opening act, a Los Angeles DJ named Jeffrey. “Who are you?” we shouted, confused on how our minds tricked us, and realizing we don’t quite know what we are here to see.
After a brief set change which involved the exchanging of two laptops between on-stage and off-stage, Matt Bennett finally arrived. He’s instantly recognizable; the trajectory of his appearance since Victorious is wholly believable and comforting. There’s not much change at all, and perhaps we can feel the same about ourselves.
He bounced on stage behind what is supposedly a DJ set up consisting of a laptop computer and a turntable mixer, all atop a black table cloth. For the duration of what could be liberally called his “DJ set,” his hands seemed to touch the knobs or create a musical transition only once in a blue moon, but the audience sang too loudly to care.
We jumped up and down, and nudged between fellow concert goers to secure ourselves a better experience. Plumes of smoke rose out of the audience; we freely committed vices while dancing to songs written under strict behavioral contracts. Disney and Nick hits played as promised, and there was a not-so-suspenseful encore where the audience shouts at Bennett to get back on stage and play “Take a Hint.”
From a critic’s lens, iParty was a low-effort production. All of the visuals shown looked to be straight from YouTube; some of them with pop-up ads baked into the file. Robbie Shapiro’s comic marionette, Rex, is nowhere to be seen. In addition to Rex, absent throughout the concert is any reason Bennett is qualified to practice the musical art of DJing.
The show still goes on despite misconduct allegations against longtime Nickelodeon producer Dan Schneider, made especially relevant due to the memoir released by fellow Nick star Jennette McCurdy this past August.
Bennett is able to avoid this discourse and instead profit off of being a has-been heartthrob. Few in the audience know exactly what he’s been up to over the past decade. In a Jurassic Park-esque feat, the fact that his celebrity is dated is what allows him to rise and thrive, despite the present moment. We know we are happy to have him back, and we are simply amazed that he is in front of us, alive on stage.
Walking down the cold Detroit sidewalk to our car after the show, Sabino told of how he made eye contact with Bennett, as the DJ made a miniature heart out of his thumb and pointer finger. He expanded the moment that lasted seconds into a play-by-play narrative, one to be retold in the weeks and months to come.
After all, when the past looks you in the eye, what choice do you have but to stare back?
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at email@example.com.