Jingle Ball, the annual Top 40 extravaganza at Xcel Energy Center, makes perfect sense to tweens, but can mystify even pop-culture savvy adults. Such was the case Monday, when the 101.3 KDWB-sponsored touring concert event unleashed a 4-hour procession of 20-minute sets from acts you know (Fall Out Boy, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas) and plenty you don't (Charlie Puth, R City, DNCE).
A spectacle of screams, fireworks, lasers, and hits (minor and major), Jingle Ball can cause sensory overload and general confusion to those not attuned to the musical tastes of the nation's fifth-graders. Here's a CliffsNotes version of what went down Monday at the sold-out arena, courtesy of an exhausted reporter who went into the lion's den naive but also curious.
Singer That Made Me Prudely Outraged On Behalf of Parents: Tove Lo
The Swedish singer's two biggest hits — "Habits (Stay High)" and "Talking Body" — are both odes to day-drinking and casual sex. Her song "Moments," performed to a crowd that just outgrew Frozen, includes the line, "I can't be the perfect one but I'll make you cum." Internally, I became Ward Cleaver on behalf of every parent in the room.
That said, her smoky, sensual prowling revealed legit pop-star cred, made even more interesting by her songwriting chops and acceptance in indie-rock circles.
Most Seizures Per Minute: Zedd
Holy. Shit. The blitzkrieg of flashing lights and lasers accompanying this Russian-German producer/DJ's set was almost painful. It's unclear exactly what Zedd was doing behind an illuminated 50-foot DJ both, but his arm flailing called to mind an EDM version of Craig Finn.
His jam for Ariana Grande, "Break Free" was gobbled up by fans, as was a reworking of MAGIC!'s insufferable hit "Rude." "I wanna see all of you jumping — 1, 2, 3, go!," Zedd commanded at one point, and lord did the packed Xcel ever comply.
Best Use of Paul Walker (RIP) as a Muse: Charlie Puth
Puth, a relative no name last year, is the piano man on Wiz Khalifa's pro-family hit "See You Again." The 24-year-old Berklee College of Music grad informed us his part was inspired by deceased actor Paul Walker, a bit of color that surely made someone feel something.
Puth was all about "feels," telling the crowd "You guys amaze me ... wow," before brushing away what we're expected to believe were tears. His schmaltzy piano-pop made more sense every time he addressed the crowd.
Fewest Performances of 'Becky From the Block': Becky G
OK, so this category is really one giant tie, but come on, Becky G! The teensy pop-rapper is charming and clever-ish when she spits bars, like the ones on early hit "Becky From the Block," but she went the generic pop route at Jingle Ball, with interchangeable cuts like "Shower" and "Break a Sweat."
Hilarious side note: Her DJ looks like the dude from Counting Crows and his name is, get this, Awsumo. Awesome.
Weirdest Approximations of Rock 'n' Roll: DNCE
I dunno what the fuck Joe Jonas thinks rock 'n' roll means, but the insane, far-flung attempts by his band to capture its ethos were super entertaining. The less-famous (but arguably hottest) Jonas bro had a raver chick on guitar, what appeared to be a Kings of Leon member on drums, and a shirtless dude rocking a mohawk and a skirt on bass.
Video projections of Windows 95-ish screensavers flashed as the pop-rock band cruised through hit "CAKE" with glossy precision. Jonas — rocking a satin jacket, vaguely political T-shirt, and hipster hairdo — ran onto the floor like Bon Jovi at one point, before returning to bow out to Queen's "We Are the Champions." Seems this JoBro is still figuring out some stuff.
Most Turnt/Grateful: R. City
The veteran, Virgin Islands-born brotherly duo of Theron and Timothy Thomas bounced around the stage with unrelenting energy and gratitude. "Can we perform our own hit?," asked the band responsible for co-writing Miley Cyrus jam "We Can't Stop" ahead of launching into their own "Locked Away," a poignant ode to their parents. What pleasant fellows!
Best Regrowth of a Limb: Hailee Steinfeld
It's the little girl from the Coen brothers' reboot of True Grit! These days, she's regained that snake-bitten arm and trades in convincing kiss-off jams, like the crazy catchy "You're Such A" and the self-worth banger "Love Myself." The 18-year-old singer/actor could be a rising star.
Hunkiest Acoustic Heartthrob: Shawn Mendes
Appearing solo with just a guitar for his entire set, Shawn Mendes was assaulted with screeches the minute he appeared on stage. The wholesome-seeming singer appears to have been generated in some sort of Heartthrob Laboratory, and the results (save for some misguided rapping) were convincing, especially on hit "Stitches," which drove the crowd into a tizzy.
Timberlake 2.0?: Nick Jonas
That'd be Nick Jonas, whose falsetto pop-R&B evoked Prince and Stevie Wonder (he's extra swol these days, too). Boy Band Law tells us only one member can emerge from the wreckage to become a star, and the sexy, swaggering, matured output from Nick suggests he's the guy. Don't be "Jealous," Joe.
Best Example of a Taylor Swift Boyfriend: Calvin Harris
Calvin Harris, ladies and gentlemen. Taylor's Scottish BF proved more agreeable than Zedd, as his knob-jockeying brought the quaking dancefloor party in a less abrasive manner. The robo-voiced man on his hits like "Summer" probably has some amazing origin story, but I'm not looking it up.
Most Confident: Demi Lovato
Lovato recently underwent something of a rebrand, and not exactly a novel one among female pop stars: The confident, sexy phase. To 23-year-old singer's credit, it worked in spades. Between hits "Confident" and "Heart Attack," a strutting Lovato declared, "I'm gonna make you a fan." She believed it; we believed it.
The Jingle Ball crowd was straight-up pummeled by Lovato's vocal theatrics throughout her full-band set, which was not even close to matched in terms of rock 'n' roll intensity (again, sorry, DNCE). "Yes" served as a brief opportunity to show off nuanced, subtler vocal work — soulful stuff that doesn't require her to show off her butt, she informed us, adding "although I do have a great butt."
Demi (who, in give-zero-fucks fashion said "fuck" onstage) closed with risqué megahit "Cool for the Summer," concluding a vocal tour-de-force that was backed by a believable sense of empowerment and identity. I'll second the live-tweet board, which read, "Go Demi GOOOOO!"
Last Top 40 Rock Band Alive: Fall Out Boy
Back when I was a pop-punk obsessed pup, Fall Out Boy graced the cover of Alternative Press with the accompanying quote: "Save pop-punk? I'd rather shoot it in the head." And that's exactly what they did. Born out of Warped Tour culture and catapulted to mainstream stardom, the band remains on Top 40 radio when all other guitar-driven rock bands have fallen off, but not without compromises.
That was abundantly clear as FOB closed out Jingle Ball. Their first song, the slick and punchy 2005 pop-punk anthem "Sugar, We're Goin Down," felt like a traditional rock 'n' roll song in a stadium setting, revealing tiny glimpses of guitar oomph. That all disappeared on the next song, this year's single "Uma Thurman."
On it, we don't hear a band maturing, although surf-rock touches and tempo shifts keep things somewhat interesting. Instead, it's a massive-sounding swing for the Top 40 fences, a calculated attempt to remain relevant with the lucrative dance- and bombast-loving Jingle Ball crowd — not that there's anything wrong with that.
Critic's bias: I love Top 40 music, but was pretty oblivious to everyone on the bill except for Fall Out Boy, Demi, the brothers Jonas, Becky, and Tove.
The crowd: Almost entirely comprised of screaming young girls and their dutiful parents. The childless, beer-drinking adults — including at least one shaggy reporter flying solo — seemed out of place.
Overheard in the crowd: "What do they say? Chicks before dicks?" — a wise tween.
Random notebook dump No. 1: Even the inter-set commercials, of which there were many, elicited cheers from the eager crowd. When a Justin Bieber music video was cut short, there were audible boos.
Random notebook dump No. 2: They seem to think Shawn Mendes is "the hottest."
Random notebook dump No. 3: "Gotta get that DJ money." If immediately successful, this will be my journalistic swan song.