Better Than: Listening to these pop hits at a bar filled with SantaCon goons.
Attending Z100’s Jingle Ball is like being thrust into a crash course on what’s dominating today’s Top 40 charts. On December 13 at Madison Square Garden, the annual holiday concert bill was the largest it’s ever been: Sixteen different performers took the stage, many of them returning more than once for duets and collaborations over the course of the four-hour performance. As a result, the holiday show’s pace was relentless and sometimes individual sets were so brief that only one song (or a dizzyingly fast medley) was spit out by the fresh-faced pop stars in the spotlight. The hurried pace of the night launched the audience into a state of constant stimulation — it’s a similar sensation to flipping through TV channels or absentmindedly surfing YouTube videos.
Jingle Ball may be one souped-up, chaotic pop machine, but it’s one hell of a production: It masterfully captures the sound of the past year by bringing together many of the successful mainstream artists one could possibly think of. This year, Taylor Swift, pop darling whose acclaimed album 1989 is currently crushing the Billboard charts, was the main attraction and headliner of the glitzy spectacle. As evidenced by the excitable chattering between each set (“I’m going to literally die when I see Taylor; she’s perfect”), the anticipation to see the singer steadily built throughout the evening. Fans, however, did not grow bored while they waited for the queen of the night.
The first act of the show was Pharrell, and he did not disappoint. Sporting one of his infamously conspicuous hats, he breezed through a series of his hits, including “Spark the Fire”, a new track that brought surprise guest Gwen Stefani to join in. To close out his short opening set, the “Happy” singer invited a pack of kids from the audience — goaded by pushy mothers — onto the stage to dance with him. After a series of droning advertisements, OneRepublic was up next. Although one might doubt their relevance in 2014, Ryan Tedder’s dynamic presence and the band’s arena-tailored tunes made their small appearance feel more like a headlining spot. Diving into the crowd during “Counting Stars,” countless iPhones sprang out of pockets as Tedder took selfies with fans.
Following OneRepublic, the show hit a bit of a lull. Newcomers Rixton and Shawn Mendes squeaked out two songs apiece during brief slots before being rushed off the stage to make way for dynamo DJ Calvin Harris, whose EDM set was perhaps the most migraine-inducing part of the evening. After a string of emerging artists, including Australian pop-rockers 5 Seconds of Summer, Maroon 5’s set brought a bit more energy back into the room. They opened with “One More Night,” then segued into their more recent (yet regrettably repetitive) tracks “Maps” and “Animals.” Frontman Adam Levine, however, commented on the fact that the band has played Jingle Ball for about a decade. Hearing this statement, it was easy to get the sense that maybe Levine was feeling a bit old up there, which isn’t so hard to fathom in a space occupied largely by pre-teens and their well-groomed mothers.
Mirroring the firm control women have held over the pop charts this year, Jingle Ball’s performances made it crystal clear that the evening belonged to the ladies. This year’s show alone boasted three powerhouse female duets: “Bang Bang,” “Black Widow,” and, of course, last summer’s most ubiquitous tune, “Fancy.” Also, instant-star Meghan Trainor brought her sassy, body-positive tune “All About That Bass” to the stage, much to the delight of the young girls in the audience who bopped along. Most strikingly, though, penultimate performer Iggy Azalea repeatedly sauntered to the highest peak of the stage and glared menacingly into the audience during the forceful “Work.” The song’s verses, which detail Iggy’s hardships as a former starving artist, might cause some to roll their eyes; after all, her villainous persona is really quite entrenched. This sentiment, however, and the act of a tenacious woman feeling no qualms about explaining just how hard she’s worked, truly summed up the female dominance that characterized the evening.
Bringing girl power to its highest peak, Taylor Swift finally took the stage shortly before midnight. Kicking her part of the show off with “Welcome to New York,” the saccharine and wide-eyed ode to her new hometown, Swift was buzzing onstage. When she strayed from her choreography, she flailed around the stage wildly like she couldn’t contain herself. Why should she, really? The singer made no apologies for her enormous success and continual domination of the pop charts. Beaming, she continued to hurtle through her set with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Blank Space,” and “Trouble.”
Somehow, Swift was able to sneak in a few charming anecdotes between her hits. Adding to the exhilaration of both Swift and her fans, the singer actually rang in her 25th birthday as the clock struck midnight about midway through her performance; she begged for the audience to scream even louder than usual as a gift, and they wholeheartedly obliged.
As Swift announced her final song, “Shake It Off,” shrill cheers swelled despite the audience’s fatigue from the four-hour show. Jaded concertgoers might have plugged their ears to block out the overwhelming shrieks from the crowd. But there is really something astounding about the energy that Jingle Ball captures under one roof, even if it does require the recollection of super-awkward adolescent memories and the obligation to dance in public.
Critic’s Notebook and the full setlist are on the next page.
Critical Bias: Growing up, Z100 was the station of choice on my school bus. I felt pretty nostalgic at this show.
Overheard: “Where’s Bruno Mars? I know he’s, like, four feet tall, but he’s the friggin’ man.”
Random Notebook Dump: One of the jumbotrons had a ticker showing tweets from fans. The words “slay” and “bae” were used most frequently to express the adoration they felt for their faves.
Spark the Fire
Apologize / Good Life
Something Big / Lose Yourself (Eminem Cover)
Life of the Party
Wait on Me
Me and My Broken Heart
Feel So Close
I Need Your Love
5 Seconds of Summer
What I Like About You (The Romantics Cover)
She Looks So Perfect
One More Night
Break the Rules
I Will Never Let You Down
I’m Not the Only One
Stay With Me
Lips Are Moving
All About That Bass
Santa Tell Me
Love Me Harder
Jessie J & Ariana Grande
Beg for It
Black Widow – Feat. Rita Ora
Fancy – Feat. Charli XCX
Welcome to New York
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Shake It Off