Jingle Ball is everything your year has led up to, if you’ve spent it within earshot of pop music. A test of your pop culture relevancy — for the artists, it’s in their very inclusion, but for the crowd, it’s an examination of how closely you’ve retained what your commutes, workouts, parties, and other such playlists have ingrained.
Regular concerts require your comprehensive knowledge of every idiosyncratic lyric and tic of every track; hyper-marqueed, streamlined festival mash-ups, like 102.7 KIIS FM and iHeartRadio’s annual Jingle Ball, hone in on those most likely to induce screams from the very teens whose activation of the artists led to their inclusion in the holiday lineup.
And screams, much like Christmas spirit, surged through the gargantuan Staples Center as this year’s Los Angeles Jingle Ball line-up (folks like The Weeknd, Selena Gomez, Ellie Goulding, Shawn Mendes, and One Direction in their last U.S. performance before hiatus) rang in the end of 2015 with the very songs that defined it for them. Why else do we crown Entertainers of the Year, then to demand their renditions of the two or three songs we’ve determined are their best per annum?
One could approach the show as a worthy barometer for teen temperature on pop popularity, but the festival is also a joyous way for adults to realize they’re not as far out of the zeitgeist as you might think. Of course, the crowd is a mostly tween group that cries out on perfect cue: during a commercial for The CW’s Arrow, for instance, or when a literal one-second-long photo of Ariana Grande provokes a shriek at her mere GIF presence, despite the audience knowing full well ahead of time that she won’t be on the guest list.
But hell if the user-friendly artists picked to fill the roster aren’t exactly why Jingle Ball (coming to a radio station-presented venue near you, every year) is one of the year’s most accessible shows for mainstream music fans, Lollapaloozas and Coachellas for the tween in you. Artists pop onstage with momentary fanfare, impress you with The Song You Know and The One Whose Lyrics You’re Learning, and then they’re gone, like Vines in the wind.
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Five Seconds of Summer and Charlie Puth kicked off the night, with the former greasing the wheels for One Direction’s later appearance and the latter nailing his piano-seated debut with “Marvin Gaye” and his Paul Walker ode “See You Again.” Puth operated solo for both collaborative hits, despite a cameo appearance from Meghan Trainor just 30 minutes later, who obviously didn’t want to Marvin Gaye and get it on that early in the show.
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Ellie Goulding, a far bigger star than her line-up placement merited, was dependably electric with samples from her newest album, which she’s described as her first attempt to go full pop. “Outside” and “On My Mind” filled the room with such pop power, sure, but it was her Fifty Shades of Grey frolic “Love Me Like You Do” that continued to prove itself as Goulding’s biggest juggernaut jam (though its dominance in a stadium of teens also suggested the strange quandary of whether they saw Fifty Shades). Meanwhile, doubters of Hailee Steinfeld’s potential as a pop contender ought to observe her on a stage, where True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2 are more bizarre outliers than defining performances. Steinfeld is wildly comfortable performing from her debut EP HAIZ, which includes her masturbatory anthem “Love Myself” (the kind of song people stand up for) and “You’re Such A” (which was unfortunately beset by giant screen visuals that misspelled Your, perpetuating in my opinion a far worse crime of teen influence than addictive video games).
Peppered throughout were other still-nascent acts finding their groove. Conrad Sewell, whose “Hold Me Up” is a certifiable underrated jam of the year, is still painfully unknown in the big house. Swedish singer Tove Lo, who’s had no lack of hits this year with “Not on Drugs,” “Talking Body,” and “Habits,” was also met with nonchalance. She’s an example of effort in the face of ennui; you can be huge in America while also being wee at Jingle Ball. Joe Jonas’s new pop-rock band endeavor DNCE performed their one familiar single “Cake by the Ocean” but also came and went, as did Zedd, who was hands down the best artist that night who played marginally better versions of other people’s music and asked the crowd things like “Are you ready to party?” and “How you doing?”
And then came the biggies. Pay attention, first and foremost, to Shawn Mendes. He’s the Vine star turned mainstream solo act destined for teen bedroom posters, sharing that same cosmic lineage as Timberlake and Bieber (and, dare I say, Jonathan Taylor Thomas) before him. The 17-year-old “Stitches” singer scored some of the night’s hugest reactions, despite staying largely stationary with a guitar and strategically-displayed biceps. His highlight came when Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello joined him onstage for their ultra-sexy, shipping-worthy duet “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
The screams for One Direction cannot be understated. You go into a show like Jingle Ball, where you know One Direction will be performing despite seeming far too big for the venue, and you may assume their stage health has diminished over the tumultuous 2015, but the truth, much like Zayn, couldn’t be further away.
The band’s global relevance and fan strength has certainly not suffered. Their set list — the longest of the night — saw their year’s offerings like “Drag Me Down”, “Perfect,” and “Infinity,” plus a throwback to their star-making “What Makes You Beautiful.” Truthfully, the band wasn’t in top form, delivering a performance filled more with rote machinations than magic, but they’re an unstoppable ball of kinetic energy regardless of the circumstances: Jingle Ball was the band’s last performance in the U.S. before their planned hiatus next year.
Selena Gomez is a veritable teen queen, demonstrating her draw with a slew of Fosse-esque dancers and serving the only real superstar performance of the evening. “Hands To Myself” is the surprise showstopper, demanding dance from the live venue; “Same Old Love” and “Good For You” are Gomez’s bigger hits, but they’re sturdy if not particularly amazing fits for concert performance. Still, she ended the night with strong momentum leading into the final act, The Weeknd. The year’s biggest success story proved why he’s the wunderkind of the year, exploding into the stadium with shattering performances of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” to close out the Ball.
And just like that, it’s unceremoniously over, with a pop of snow confetti and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” echoing as people leave. Half the line-up has made it; half still have a way to go. But Jingle Ball calls upon the mainstream for simple symphonic samples of the songs that made them stars this year, or at least primed them for even bigger potential in 2016 (you can do it, Conrad Sewell). Jingle Ball is that post-modern app store of talent, where each artist pops on stage with little build-up to show their best-selling wares before they’re gone, perhaps back here next year with two to three new songs to add to the mix. For now they’re off to the next city to the next stadium to the next Jingle Ball crowd. But damn if they don’t make a merry mainstream impression when they’re there.