BROOKLYN, NY—Imagine a place where all the offers are epic, the deals never end, and shipping is always free. A heavenly kingdom where you can click a button and—like magic—the shower head, butt plug, or off-brand iPhone cable of your dreams appears at your door. This is the sales pitch of the Church of Amazon, the retail cult with the modest ambition of controlling all commerce in the known universe.
Like all major faiths, Amazon has a logo (an impish, slightly lascivious smile), a spiritual leader (Space Pope Jeff Bezos), and a holiday: Prime Day, this day, the cunning Christmas-in-July scheme that serves as the online shopping giant’s holiest occasion.
Following the mysterious logic of the almighty, Prime Day is now 36 hours long, and was preceded by a series of Amazon-hosted concerts called “Unboxing Prime Day.” To promote the promotions for the promotion, the company released a teaser video earlier this month showing enormous “Smile boxes” containing “unforgettable events” being shipped around the world, possibly with celebrity guests packed tightly inside.
A coworker jokingly suggested that each mammoth box contained a single SD card. He wasn’t far off. Just two days before Amazon’s Brooklyn event, the company revealed the concert would be headlined by Ariana Grande, the babyish, recently engaged pop star who stands approximately four SD cards tall. Suddenly, Amazon’s big, stupid box presented a more intriguing opportunity, one that potentially ended with me, Grande, and Grande’s husband-to-be Pete Davidson all riding jet skis in the Bahamas.
My mission was now clear. I would ask Amazon for entry to the Grande concert and try to learn everything I could about the true meaning of Prime Day. In the process, I would also meet and befriend Davidson, who seems like a pretty chill guy and fit the big package theme.
There was only one problem: The event’s rules strictly prohibited vapes of any kind, and, like many members of the media, I have become hopelessly dependent on JUUL e-cigarettes. But with six nicotine lozenges tucked inside an Amazon-approved Ziplock bag (more on this later), I felt fully prepared on Wednesday for an evening of music, merriment, and, above all, unbelievable DEALS. I would end up chewing all six.
Nearing the event in an Uber, I was well into my first minty smoking cessation aid when I asked the driver to look for the giant Amazon box. In a strange coincidence, my driver told me he owned a box factory in his home country, but had given up both when his wife died suddenly. Some 10 years later, he was now a recently documented immigrant driving a cab, a search for greater opportunity he described as God’s plan.
I told him that I, too, had come to New York looking for better possibilities, but couldn’t explain how a giant box fit into any of this. In any case, my suggestion to look for the box was a mistake that stemmed from reading Amazon’s scripture too literally: I had assumed the venue hosting the concert would be done up to look like an Amazon package, but had no reason to believe this was actually true. (It wasn’t.)
After some confusion, he dropped me off at the entrance of the Duggal Greenhouse, a fashionably renovated dockyard warehouse, a little before 6 p.m., and I stuffed the Ziplock bag containing my Amazon-sanctioned possessions into my back pocket. In addition to vapes, security rules banned fireworks, umbrellas, drugs, drones, animals, whistles, laser pointers, weapons, coolers, and “any other items deemed to be dangerous or inappropriate.” That which wasn’t explicitly verboten then had to fit in a clear bag no more than 12 inches by six inches by 12 inches. As a cheerful public relations professional led me through the metal detectors, I was glad I followed the rules closely.
Overseeing approximately 80 early arrivers were about a dozen security guards and cops, as well as a sniffer dog and a police boat stationed on the water outside. Given the high-profile headliner, it seemed like a reasonable troop deployment, but still clashed with the otherwise intimate, town carnival vibe of the event. This served as my first lesson about the nature of Prime Day: It is fun, casual, and family-friendly, but also incredibly secure.
Prime Day also smelled a bit like fish. While the venue for the Brooklyn event was undeniably well-chosen, tucked out of the way and offering a handsome view of the Williamsburg Bridge, its warehouse origins were undeniable. It was a big box designed to house smaller boxes, a precursor to the grim fulfillment centers that have enabled Amazon’s global conquest. If nothing else, it seemed like the kind of place an Amazon warehouse might aspire to become should it tire of the pedestrian business of exploiting the working poor.
That’s not to say it wasn’t fun. It was fun! Self-consciously, aggressively so. As I walked past an Amazon Treasure Truck and a Wickedly Prime snack station, an important-seeming man in a charcoal suit saw my press pass and asked me what I thought. As I mumbled a response, he said, “It’s cool, right?” without it really sounding like a question.
There was also, as promised, a giant Smile box on the premises, but no Pete Davidson in sight. Before I could investigate the matter more thoroughly, however, the evening’s first act began. The stage, I was disappointed to discover, hadn’t been decorated like an Amazon box either.
“There’s no innuendos, it’s exactly what you think,” sang Julia Michaels in a stage whisper. “Believe me when I tell you that he loves the color pink.” Taking the lyrics at face value, I concluded it was a song about a man with strong opinions about hues.
It was at this point that I began wondering how the event’s other attendees (about 300 of them by the end of the night) found themselves here. Amazon’s promotional materials framed the concert as a special invite-only “thank you” to “Prime members and fans,” but what fans and what members? I approached an Amazon staffer wearing a new Ariana Grande shirt for more information—and instead asked about free swag.
Andrew, who I soon learned worked for Amazon Canada, told me he picked up the tan Ariana Grande shirt I’d seen on various audience members in the “fan” line at the entrance. He offered to take me there, and I declined, before walking back to say yes, actually, I’d appreciate that very much.
After lots of laughing and high-fives between Andrew from Canada and other Amazon workers, I, too, possessed a tan Ariana Grande shirt. A smiling woman at the fan desk asked if I was from Canada as well. When I said no, she told me, “You should visit!” with an enthusiasm I still do not understand, but continue to believe. In that moment, she wanted me to visit Canada more than anyone has ever wanted anyone else to do anything, offering the kind of suggestion that is usually only shouted by audiences trying to prevent the deaths of horror movie characters.
This brings me to the night’s second teaching: Prime Day is energetic!!!
Around the time I popped my second lozenge, I realized I should take a full inventory of the night’s activities and offerings.
According to my survey, an attendee to the 2018 Brooklyn Unboxing Prime Day event could score the following freebies: bottles of Bai Supertea and Hint fruit-infused water; Wickedly Prime nut bars, fruit and nut bars, fruit, nut, and seed bars, roasted cashews, and plantain chips; self-designed Prime Day t-shirts; Hippeas organic chickpea puffs; SmashMallow SmashCrisp[ies]; various alcoholic beverages; Amazon-branded koozies; Amazon-branded sunglasses; Amazon Treasure Truck stickers; Flow spring water; Amazon Smile logo enamel pins; and, if they’re lucky, an Ariana Grande Sweetener shirt. Additionally, they could enjoy the following activity stations: the Amazon Treasure Truck LP ring toss game, the Prime Day papercraft photo booth, the Alexa giant Jenga table, the Alexa swim ring photo op, and the (previously suggested) Prime Day custom t-shirt center.
Alone, each served as a nice distraction between sets, but together they conveyed a larger message: our company is more than just cheap shit that shows up on your porch. Not only was each station connected with a different aspect of Amazon’s ever-sprawling empire, the concert itself was promoting Amazon Music (which is a thing, I guess?) and was broadcast on Twitch, the livestreaming service the company acquired in 2014.
This led to my third revelation about the spirit of Prime Day: Amazon is thirsty as hell.
Sure, the company’s primary mission will always be the continued growth of its worldwide caliphate, but, at some level, the extended Prime Day festivities suggested that someone at Amazon was asking where the real Bezosheads, the true ride-or-die, give-me-two-day-shipping-or-give-me-death Amazonians, were at.
Of course, it’s hard to get excited about Amazon, the faceless shopping giant we continue to use despite our growing awareness of its sins. Faced with this problem, the event seemed to ask, “If you can’t love Jeff Bezos, maybe you can love his good friend Ariana Grande?”
Fortunately for Amazon, we can, and we did. It turned out the Ariana Grande shirt was the secret to getting other audience members to talk to me (thanks again, Andrew from Canada), with multiple people approaching me throughout the evening to ask where I got it.
The first were John and his young daughter Frankie, who was pulled out of her Hamptons summer camp early to attend the concert. According to John, the invitation arrived in his inbox on Monday and was “the weirdest thing.” At first, John and his wife weren’t even sure they’d tell Frankie about the strange offer to see a pop star, but once they did, she was in tears. “I was about cry,” confirmed Frankie.
John and Frankie represented a key demographic of the crowd, which I estimated to be about one-third parents and their daughters, one-third adult Grande fans, and one-third people like me, who weren’t totally sure why they were there, but weren’t about to turn down the chance to see someone famous for free.
When I later asked Amazon how attendees were selected, I was simply told that “Prime members, artist fan club members and Amazon Music listeners in the New York City area” were invited to the show, which suggested people were chosen from these three groups more or less at random.
As I tucked into my third lozenge, I was beginning to know some of the other misfit concertgoers, if not by name, then by appearance. There was Man in the “Reggae Changed My Life” Shirt, American Chav Teen, and Confused-Looking Metallica Fan, with whom I felt the closest (purely imagined) kinship.
The night’s second performer was Kelsea Ballerini, who opened with some gracious remarks about both Amazon and the powerful females sharing the billing, but whose country songs had little to offer me. An impatient, seemingly intoxicated Ariana fan who gave his name as Gem was less forgiving.
“Who’s this country bitch?” asked Gem, who also openly wondered “whose dick [he needed] to suck” to get a Grande t-shirt. I told him, sadly, that I did not know for sure, but he might try asking someone at the mysteriously Canada-loving fan desk.
I, too, was growing restless, and started looking for more creative diversions. For a few minutes, I wrote the names of key brands in my notebook and tried to determine whether or not they possessed Big Dick Energy (BDE), the mystical, ineffable aura exuded by people of casual confidence like Pete Davidson. In the end, I decided that Walmart had BDE, but Jeff Bezos, Whole Foods, and Uber did not.
Next, I tried my hand at the vinyl record-themed ring toss game, which I had been saving for a moment of serious boredom. After three missed shots, I was given a bonus fourth throw, which I also completely biffed. I was awarded an Amazon Smile pin anyway. This served as another lesson about Prime Day: It forgives you for your failures.
By then, the whole crowd wanted Ariana, but I needed her (or perhaps just more nicotine in my bloodstream) desperately. While I waited, I shoved another lozenge in my mouth.
At this point, it became clear I would not be befriending Pete Davidson, who, even if he was there, was definitely backstage. To kill time, I stared at the sniffer dog, a handsome black Labrador Retriever. A woman asked the security guard holding the dog’s leash if she could pet it. He shook his head like it was his job, which it was.
Finally, Alessia Cara, the night’s last act before Grande, came out. Cara—who entered the public eye by posting acoustic covers to her YouTube channel—invites comparisons to another famous Canadian, and her performance was Bieber-esque in the best way possible.
Between songs, she spoke about issues like body image and the pains of growing up with a practiced sincerity. Genuine or not, it was easy to see why her accessible persona connected with the audience when Ballerini’s Nashville polish had not.
Maybe I wouldn’t be meeting Davidson, but by the end of her set, I felt Cara was truly there for me, which served as the fifth teaching of Prime Day: Amazon is your friend.
Now five lozenges in, I reassessed the scene as darkness settled over Amazon’s giant music box. Audience members began grouping up, obeying the same primal instinct that, in previous millennia, drew unacquainted cave-dwellers around a single fire. I, however, remained a lone wolf, the impartial, alien observer sent to this planet to study humanity without truly experiencing its joys. As I watched Confused-Looking Metallica Fan share a contraband e-cigarette with some new friends, I inhaled the bitter vapor of jealousy.
These thoughts were interrupted by the pop music equivalent of a meteor strike: Ariana had arrived. She was here! I rushed to the stage and, like many people in the crowd of hundreds watching a woman who regularly sang for tens of thousands, dutifully took out my phone.
While the openers started their acts with kind words for our corporate benefactor, Grande’s stage banter was minimal and largely inaudible: She was there for one reason, to perform. Frankly, watching a show designed for stadiums at this distance was something like looking at the Sun through a telescope, and had a similar effect on the human mind.
As the opening notes of “Dangerous Woman” began, someone near me shouted, “Where’s Pete Davidson?” I had long since transcended such trivialities. Grande reached the chorus, and I found myself shout-singing that I, too, noticed something about you makes me feel like a dangerous woman.
And just as quickly as it began, there was an explosion of confetti, steam, and streamers, and it was over.
As I walked out, I searched within for what the night might have meant, and found only a void. Near the entrance, I passed a couple trying to scan an Amazon “SmileCode” (the company’s propriety 2D barcodes) on the side of the giant box. I asked them what it unlocked. “Nobody knows,” the man replied, “because it doesn’t fucking work.”
At a concert ostensibly recognizing Prime members, what Amazon obviously wanted was recognition for itself. Unlike other world-eating tech companies, however, Amazon doesn’t make the kind of individual product consumers can idolize. It has Alexa and Kindle, sure, but it feels strangely like an also-ran in these spaces, despite enjoying market dominance.
Even its logo comes across as an incomplete concept, the bottom half of Walmart’s vacuous smiley face, if Walmart’s vacuous smiley face wanted to fuck. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a company to come up with a single symbol to encompass such an unbelievable variety of commercial activities, which now range from domestic surveillance, to pharmaceuticals and groceries, to unintentional domestic surveillance. Maybe no company should.
So what’s the true meaning of Prime Day? Fun, friendship, safety, and a weird sense of desperation you’ll overlook because the deal is so good.
As I got to the street outside the warehouse to be picked up, I passed a bar playing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In his first post-Grande encounter with non-Amazonians, another Unboxing Prime Day attendee shouted to its patrons, “We just seen Ariana Grande!”
I got into an Uber and the driver asked if there was a concert or something. I fumblingly tried to explain what I had just seen.
“I use Amazon, too,” said my driver, “why didn’t they send me?”
I put my final lozenge in my mouth and told him I’d ask.