MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice Rock Utah

At around 6 p.m. they start gathering, jockeying to be the first through the doors of the McKay Events Center when they swing open in two hours. People of all ages (but pretty much just one race) huddle together in the 30 degree Orem, Utah, chill. Just before 8, the eager concertgoers start chanting the singers' names. There's no irony or mockery in any of this. They seem genuinely, sincerely excited, in their polite way. Pessimists will want to attribute this enthusiasm to anything except the names of the headliners, and there's plenty for them to work with. Orem, 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, isn't exactly a vibrant arts community. A good 10 percent of the town could fit into this venue. But this show is bigger than Orem. Fans have driven from all over the state for this one-night-only event. Someone boasts about coming all the way from Canada. Another guy says he's from Decatur, Ga., only to admit he was really a Utahn who did his Mormon missionary work there. Still it's obvious that tonight, Orem has become ground zero for '90s romantics far and wide. After all, the names are the marquee are none other than MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.

The idea of an MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice concert in Utah raises a lot of questions. On second thought, it's just one question—why?—but it comes in two varieties. There are the nuts-and-bolts whys, which we can tick off now. Why would either Hammer or Ice do a concert to begin with? Because they have families and mortgages and the Iceman has the tattoo bug. Why together? I thought they hated each other. There was mild drama when they toured together in the '90s, after Ice reportedly said the crowds were more impressed with his skills than Hammer's. Water under the bridge. Why is it in Utah? Because a local promoter invited them to perform there, and Utahns love to party. Why would anyone pay 40 bucks to see this concert? If you've read up to this point, let's face it, with the right social lubricant you're there with bells on. But there are more complex, philosophical whys. Why do MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice still exist? Having provided the soundtrack for my bat mitzvah and the basis for ironic Halloween costumes, has not their purpose been served? Why, after all these years, have the winds and rains not eroded them away?

Here's why. Imagine the crowning achievement of your life was your performance as a stalk of broccoli in a second-grade play about the four food groups. Would you slink back into obscurity because it was expected of you, or would you get over yourself, suit back up and comically mispronounce beta carotene just like old times? Even though their music has come to represent all that was cheesy about the '90s, instead of hiding from it, these two old friends perform it. It's a feat requiring either a complete lack of self-awareness or an overabundance of it. Most would settle for the former, but don't hate on Hammer and Ice for choosing the latter.

Hammer, for his part, isn't apologizing for any of it. Not for the music, not for the pants, not even for that Cash4Gold commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. ("I could get cash for this gold medallion of me wearing a gold medallion!") Hammer, né Stanley Burrell, believes that between the 10 million-plus albums he's sold and the cultural influence he claims, he's got nothing to be ashamed of. "I'm not the least bit self-conscious," says Hammer, now 46, his tone steeled with defiance before the show. "I'm the guy who went to the Tokyo Dome and sold out five nights. Who's the other rapper who sold out five nights at the Tokyo Dome? Oh, that's right, there isn't one. You don't have to add anything to my résumé, just read it like it is." A few minutes later, one of his buzzabouts brings him a Rockstar Energy Drink, presumably because the Pop Rapper Emeritus Energy Drinks weren't cold.

One-hit wonders don't intend to be one-hit wonders, and that's doubly true for rappers. Hip-hop, even the triple-distilled variety Hammer and Ice trade in, is all about hubris, about knowing that pop stardom is fickle and fleeting but proclaiming loudly that you have what it takes to defy the inevitable decline. Look at this portion of the first verse of Ice's "Ice Ice Baby": "Will it ever stop? Yo, I don't know." Say what you will about the man, but he's never minced his words. He's a sober realist, and he didn't mollycoddle those who saw his stardom as a national nightmare. He stared them straight in the eye and told them plainly that this scourge may never end, and now that Ice (né Robert Van Winkle) is 41, it seems more than an idle threat. Hammer, meanwhile, said he was "Too Legit to Quit." It not only rhymed, it was hard to argue with. And then there are those pants, with the drooping expanse of fabric in the crotch. At first they're a fashion statement, but give it a couple decades and they become the perfect camouflage for middle-age paunch. Clearly, he had no intention of fading away.

But there's a difference between accepting their right to exist and coming out in droves to celebrate them, as the good people of Utah do. They come costumed: neon colors, translucent fabrics and acid-wash denim, with teased hair and single earrings. Many of them wear the pants that became Hammer's sartorial trademark. One woman wears no pants at all, the better to read the words stitched on the rear of her red panties: "Ice Baby." Most of these folks were just born the last time Hammer and Ice performed together 18 years ago, if they were born at all. Somehow, they still sound nostalgic. "I hope he does his old stuff," says Reagan Nickel, 21, who trekked an hour and a half from Bountiful, Utah, to see Ice. "I saw him on TV a while ago bashing his old stuff. He shouldn't bash it, he should be proud of it. We are. Aren't we proud of it?" "Yeah!" shouts a sextet of nearby girls, in unison, every last one of them 14 years old. The majority of the crowd falls into the late-teen, early 20s range. They aren't the ones who bought Hammer's and Ice's records the first time around. They got their nostalgia secondhand, from VH1's ceaseless "I Love the '80s" and "Awesomely Bad" specials, from iTunes recommendations, from "Family Guy," which derives a solid half of its humor from arcane pop-culture references. To these kids, the Hammer era is fun and frivolous, something to celebrate, not to deride. It's not the lame music their parents conceived them to. It's the music that blared from their older siblings' rooms.

It's about 10 o'clock when Ice takes the stage. He's making bold strokes, pulling mostly from his recent rap-rock material, which the audience doesn't appear to dig. After a few songs, he starts speaking their language: "How about I take it back to the old school?" The crowd goes nuts. "Ice Ice Baby" brings down the house. He follows with "Play That Funky Music," and even plays "Ninja Rap," the song he penned for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze." He might not be as proud as Nickel and the tweens would like, but he's doing his job. Hammer joins him wearing a black pair of his signature pants and tears through a set of his biggest hits. A camera crew swarms about collecting footage for his forthcoming reality show. He includes one of his campier, later singles, "Pumps and a Bump," best known for its video in which he frolics about in a Speedo that proved too immodest for MTV censors. No shame in his game. By the time Hammer's ready to mount his closing number, the smash "U Can't Touch This," the crowd is at a fever pitch. The harsh truth is, these songs are giddy and infectious, just as much now as then. A mite odd, yes, but as Friday night entertainment in Utah, perfectly legit.