The connection between fashion and rock is a mercurial one, no matter how hard Mischa Barton and Tommy Hilfiger try to explain its obviousness. The reality is sometimes it's there and sometimes it isn't.
So it's no wonder that the "Fashion Rocks" benefit at Radio City Music Hall Thursday night was pretty hit-and-miss with its unexpected artist pairings or cover version choices. (An edited version of the show airs on CBS tonight at 9 p.m.)
Mary J. Blige and Usher teamed up for a playful version of Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do" to close out an old-school soul medley where Blige tackled "Respect" and Usher paid tribute to James Brown with "It's a Man's World" and some impressive splits.
Jennifer Hudson showed that her "Dreamgirls" performance was no fluke, serving up a powerhouse version of The Beatles' "Come Together" with Aerosmith's Joe Perry on guitar that sizzled with style and sass. And Carrie Underwood rocked through "Go Your Own Way" with Lindsey Buckingham, even pretending to duel with him on guitar.
Aerosmith's pairing with Fergie on "Walk This Way," while fashionable, didn't quite rock, as Fergie's shouty vocals unfortunately overpowered Steven Tyler. And Carlos Santana's duet with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger on "Into the Night" seemed as stilted as the awkward presenter banter between Teri Hatcher and 50 Cent. (Kroeger just couldn't sell the Latin-tinged rocker with his Canadian accent.)
Santana's duet with Alicia Keys on "Black Magic Woman," however, was a sultry thrill.
Keys was even better on her own, showcasing her new single "No One," which transformed from a gorgeous piano ballad to a massive, stadium-worthy anthem and back again.
In the end, many stars did much better on their own, doing their own material. Jennifer Lopez was stunning with a high-concept performance of her new single "Do It Well," which played out like a Broadway musical number complete with fake paparazzi and a troupe of dancers. Then, after a bit of a struggle removing her first outfit, she delivered a remixed version of "Waiting for Tonight" that seemed built for the runway with all the wind machines and strutting models.
Martina McBride was also strong with her hits "This One's for the Girls" and a stirring version of "Where Would You Be" that showed off her powerful voice. And Avril Lavigne pepped things up with her punk-cheerleader anthem "Girlfriend," though that was one song that would've benefited from a special guest perhaps Brooklyn rapper Lil' Mama, who spices up the song's remix.
This year's "Fashion Rocks," which is more of a TV show than a concert, cut back on the runway show element that was a signature of previous years. The only time fashion really took center stage was during Maroon 5's version of "Be My Baby," where models wearing American designers' latest collections strutted while the band played.
Maybe next year organizers will find fashion designers and rockers that have a better fit.
FASHION ROCKS. Threading the needle between old and new with Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Santana, Aerosmith, Carrie Underwood and others. At Radio City Music Hall on Thursday.