Z100 Jingle Ball: Lady Gaga, Pitbull, David Guetta, Kelly Clarkson, LMFAO, Gym Class Heroes, Demi Lovato, Foster The People, and Hot Chelle Rae w/Karmin, The Script
Madison Square Garden
Friday, December 9
Better than: A lump of coal and a “Firework” CD single.
To begin, let’s run down a few key numbers related to the 2011 installment of Z100’s Jingle Ball. Friday night’s pop extravaganza had 11 sets; 32 full songs; five medleys; two point five holiday-themed songs; two encores; one Coldplay video; one Kardashian; and one member of LMFAO on the disabled list. Things that were present in abundance, so I didn’t keep tallies: Screaming; festive attire; between-song ads; shout-outs to New York City.
I begin with statistics, because what is Z100—the East Coast top-40 flagship of the Clear Channel monolith—but a celebration of numbers? At the night’s outset, Elvis Duran, host of the morning show, declared, “When you hear a song played on Z100, you know it’s a hit.” The artists atop the Jingle Ball’s bill, with their ability to be reduced to one name—Gaga, Pitbull, Guetta, Kelly, all of whom have spent the month performing atop other Jingle Balls in other cities—bore this theory out in a sense; their sets, brief but longer than those earlier in the evening, contained only “hits,” songs that might not have been familiar by title but that were sing-alongable within the first verse.
And the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em sets that blitzed the show’s first 20 minutes showed what could happen when an artist’s arsenal only possessed a single hot track. Hot Chelle Rae, a goofy pop-rock act that brings to mind a training-wheels version of the mid-naughts buzzband Hot Hot Heat, was given exactly enough time to play the jaunty “Tonight Tonight” and thank the crowd. Following them, Foster The People got the arena singing and smiling along with the declarations of a firearm’s power that comprise the chorus to their slow-climb hit “Pumped Up Kicks”—which the band then blew out with a remix-like arrangement that nodded to the club-pop clutter surrounding its fluffy, murderous track on Z100’s playlist. (Not bad for a night designed to benefit an anti-bullying charity.)
Headlining the evening was Lady Gaga, the hometown-girl-gone-good (in a sense). The assemblage of Z100 DJs who took the stage before her night-closing run through the singles off her most recent album Born This Way called her the “most important artist of our time” and “our favorite woman on the planet Earth.” Three years ago she’d been in the Hot Chelle Rae slot, performing the tribute to getting wasted “Just Dance”; Friday she headlined, and when she first appeared, singing the thrilling “The Edge Of Glory” while nestled in a streetside Christmas-tree display, she sported the platinum bangs and shadeblockers that visually defined her earliest days. It was hard to tell if that was a nod to how far she’d come, although between songs her banter was giddy and nervous and almost chirpy at times, with her remembering how a “Jingle Bell Ball” was her first concert, at age 11, and ruminating on how much she really, really loved New York City.
Is Gaga the biggest pop star in the world? The notion of “hits” might have formed the night’s rhetoric, but on Friday Billboard dropped its year-end Hot 100 and her highest-charting single—Born This Way‘s title track—landed just inside the top 20. Blame her stubbornness for that; the songs on Born This Way, like those on Beyoncé’s similarly solid but radio-absent 4, don’t hew to the four-on-the-floor template that define so much of top 40’s playlist and that other artists on the bill—David Guetta, who stood atop giant speakers during a frenetic 15-minute set that cycled through six tracks he masterminded; LMFAO, operating at half-strength because of a back injury suffered by SkyBloo but with a fun show regardless; Pitbull, outfitted in a suit and turning his catalog into a series of ever-increasing peaks—put forth with a combination of professionalism and glee.
Gaga’s earlier material, which got a cursory, keytar-assisted run-through early on, fits in better with current trends in pop than do her new tracks, which nod to anthems from movies running in endless syndication (“Edge,” “Yoü And I”), early-’90s pop (“Born This Way,” “Marry The Night”), and her own “Bad Romance” (the criminally underrated confused-catechism love song “Judas”) while being wholly Gaga, making sense as parts of her whole despite their inspirations coming from all over the (white) pop spectrum. Perhaps that’s a sign that her unbridled ambition has caused her to be one step ahead of the game; certainly the snippet of the “Marry The Night” video that played before her show-closing performance of that storming flashback to late-20th-century dancepop, with its extended riff on the idea of turning a nervous breakdown into an opportunity for showcasing next season’s fashions, caused me to wonder what might happen when, say, the embattled belter Demi Lovato discovers the idea of situational irony.
There was something a bit off about Gaga’s set, though; perhaps that feeling was attributable in part to her nerves, or to the fact that dragging all those trees onstage for her set change had resulted in a one-two punch of brief appearances by the loathsome Karmin and the ineffectual Script (both performed from the crowd) that let a bit of the air out of the room, or to overall weariness: By the time Gaga hit the stage, the music had been flowing for three hours with little time to breathe, and last call for certain suburban transit lines loomed. The songs remained potent—that “Judas” is “Bad Romance” with added Catholic pathos isn’t a bad thing, since the source material is one of the best pop songs of the last 25 years—but the performances seemed like they were still having their kinks worked out here and there.
Despite the hinkiness, the excitement did peak more often than it didn’t, with the crowd screaming along with lyrics that chronicle both self-reliance and self-loathing and putting their paws up anytime she asked them to. At one point, while prone on a motorcycle, Gaga engaged in the most festive behavior of the night: She humped the air while singing the verse she tacked on to “White Christmas,” a doubly masturbatory act that should have made any pop star worth their BDS rankings quiver in their boots at what might be. No doubt the members of Hot Chelle Rae got stars in their eyes right then.
Critical bias: Kelly > Gaga > [gap] > “Cupid’s Chokehold” > Pitbull > “Billionaire” > LMFAO > Everything else but The Script and Karmin > [huge gap] > The Script > Karmin
Overheard: “Well, at least ShuffleBot is still here.”
Random notebook dump: Sitting one foot away from a confetti cannon really makes you empathize with the fate of Robert DeNiro’s Brazil character.
Random notebook dump II: It would appear that Gaga’s first Jingle Ball was the 1997 edition, which had on its bill the Backstreet Boys, Hanson, fellow New York-bred piano troubadour Fiona Apple, and a surprise performance by Celine Dion.
Random notebook dump III: Dichotomies present at Jingle Ball: Sponsorship by the anti-getting-wasted group Above The Infuence and the musical output of LMFAO, Pitbull, Gaga, and Guetta; benefiting the anti-bully charity STOMP Out Bullying as tons of youngsters sang along with “Pumped Up Kicks”‘s revenge fantasia; various censorings and non-censorings of “bitch” and “fuck” throughout the evening.
Random notebook dump IV: Kelly Clarkson started her set with “Since U Been Gone.” I’m just saying.
Hot Chelle Rae
Tonight, Tonight (Z100 Jingle Ball Remix)
Foster The People
Don’t Stop (Color On The Walls)
Pumped Up Kicks
All Night Long
Give Your Heart A Break
Gym Class Heroes
Ass Back Home (w/Neon Hitch)
Sorry For Party Rocking
Shots / I’m In New York Trick
Party Rock Anthem
Sexy And I Know It
Since U Been Gone
Mr. Know It All
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (w/Demi Lovato)
My Life Would Suck Without You
Gettin’ Over You / Where Them Girls At / Turn Me On / Little Bad Girl / Titanium / Without You
Hey Baby (Drop It To The Floor)
Hello / Party Rock Anthem / Shut It Down
Rain Over Me
I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)
On The Floor / I Like It / DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love
Give Me Everything
Look At Me Now / Crash Your Party
For The First Time
The Edge Of Glory
Just Dance / Poker Face
Yoü And I
Born This Way
Marry The Night