Jingle Ball 2017: Too many dudes, not enough Kesha, Camila, or Halsey

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Baby she's a star: Camila Cabello performing in London in November. Associated Press

Cute boys don’t have to try very hard.

That universal truth was everywhere on display at last night’s Jingle Ball, the annual KBWB-endorsed tween-to-teen screamathon presented by the corporate pop monopolists at IHeartRadio.

Established stars and the up-and-comers who strive to replace them were whisked through a dizzyingly taut schedule (nine acts on and off in three and a half hours, with room for Dave Ryan and his crew to say hey in between). The males, for the most part, looked pretty and sang nice and barely broke a sweat, secure in the knowledge that the adulation of their fans would fill any vacuum of stage presence. The women looked fantastic and held the stage with steely determination and star power. Pop mirrors life, I guess.

Here are some other takeaways from last night’s show.

Liam Payne and Niall Horan are ‘No Direction’

The lads of One Direction wisely hedged their solo bets by dubbing their breakup a hiatus in 2015. Last night’s Jingle Ball offered Liam Payne and Niall Horan, the two-fifths of 1D not successful enough to play arenas on their own but not unsuccessful enough to be Louis Tomlinson, and they coasted on their accrued credit as crushworthy stage fillers.

Two of Liam’s three songs were about undressing the girl he’s singing to: “Strip That Down” you can figure out for yourself, “Bedroom Floor” is about where her clothes belong. As come-ons come, Payne’s style ain’t quite roundabout enough to be called innuendo, but it’s not as handsy and heavy-breathing as Zayn’s collection of slow jam lullabies, Have I Mentioned That I Fuck? Then again, it’s not as crafty as Harry Styles’ album, Robbie Williams Sings the Travis Songbook. And that “just some bloke wandering around onstage” schtick that worked for One Direction? It just seems listless when you’re on your own.

Niall Horan has a half-decent hit in “Slow Hands” – or half a decent hit, I should say. On the verses a guitar slinks through a sexed-up approximation of the riff from Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust,” a thing I never before thought possible or desirable. Then the cold shower of a chorus douses you with the lyric “sweat dripping down our dirty laundry,” which manages to be both nonsensical and profoundly unsexy. Most of the time though, Horan strummed an acoustic guitar like he was hoping the Mumfords would adopt him. We get it, Niall, you’re Irish.

At least Charlie Puth isn’t as famous as Ed Sheeran

I once believed that a vengeful God placed Charlie Puth on Earth to prove that teen girls don’t have flawless taste in music, but that was before Ed Sheeran made me a confirmed atheist. Talented enough at fitting word to chord that he’d be thriving behind the scenes even if he wasn’t cute enough (barely, in my admittedly worthless opinion) to sing his own stuff, Puth’s place in pop was unfortunately cemented when he united with Wiz Khalifa for the monumental Paul Walker elegy “See You Again,” the 21st century’s answer to both Elton John’s Princess Diana rewrite of “Candle in the Wind” and Puffy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” Puth Daddy does a lot of annoying things with his head and his face while he performs, which at least distracts you (OK, distracts me) from his songs. He plays piano fairly well. These guys always do.

Is Jennifer Garner a tween icon?

Jingle Ball permits as little downtime as possible, and in the few moments when someone wasn’t performing last night, onscreen commercials flashed before their captive audience. (Sponsored by Capitol One, Jingle Ball is less concerned with selling merch onsite than with training the consumer of the future.)

The teens went wild during a spot for Riverdale, the quasi-Lynchian reworking of the Archie comics that I’d thought appealed exclusively to self-aware social media addicts in their late 20s. I was proud of how purposely they all ignored a screeching Kevin Hart rant during an ad for that unfortunate Jumanji remakeThey couldn’t possibly have cared about Jennifer Garner’s credit card commercial. I mean, could they?

Nobody warned me there’d be G-Eazy

Look you can’t just spring G-Eazy on an unsuspecting crowd. That oleaginous motherfucker is like peanuts – some of us are deathly allergic and we need to know in advance. The white “““rapper””” (and that term may deserve even more quotation marks) emerged during Halsey’s set to perform their duet, “Him and I,” and to once more flaunt his inability to understand the concept of personal space. Halsey herself was a smidgen less charismatic in this just-the-hits setting than she was during her full-length show a couple weeks back – she needs some breathing room to let that gruff, pansexual Jersey charm work its magic, but she once more made her Chainsmokers duet palatable by performing it as a piano ballad.

I was wrong, Camila – you’re a star

I stupidly scoffed when Camila Cabello left Fifth Harmony, expecting her to wither away like the Nicole Scherzinger of her generation, a name doomed to be forever preceded by “featuring.” But her unsettling liquid coo stole “Bad Things” from the icky Machine Gun Kelly last year, “Havana” is a steamy, career-establishing hit that got Young Thug on KDWB, and she’s even taken a stand on DACA repeal. Last night Cabello projected an intimacy that proved she was ready for rooms this size, and (at the risk of making another failed prediction) her new song, “I’ll Never Be the Same,” sounds destined for inescapability. Effortless pop stardom is as difficult a skill to master as guitar virtuosity, a sometimes forgettable fact that Jingle Ball highlights by allowing you to contrast the performance style of struggling newbies and bona fide pros. Charisma can be nurtured, but it can't be faked. There’s an art to being famous, and Camila’s got it down.

Maybe it’s time for Jingle Ball to find a new rock band

Just as there can only be one Highlander, there can only be one rock band at Jingle Ball, and apparently Smash Mouth was slain years ago by Fall Out Boy, who have held that title ever since. The emo-pop turned pop-emo turned pop-pop stars played last, which means either a) they were the headliners or b) the show organizers wanted to give parents time to get their kids home early on a school night.

A nearby teen who had literally (and I don’t mean figuratively-literally) danced and sang every word to every song for the past two hours stood with closed-mouth impatience during the opener, “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” though she did indeed dance like Uma Thurman when the time was appropriate.

Guitarist Pete Wentz thanked KDWB “for playing rock and roll,” which I guess means he’s an Imagine Dragons fan. (ID are surely next in line for the Jingle Ball rock throne, no?)

Anyway, Kesha was a better rock band.

Why don’t they make the whole Jingle Ball out of Kesha?

To start, the comeback kid of 2017 strutted through her throwback soul jam “Woman,” self-editing “motherfucking” with such confidence it felt more defiant than if she’d sung the actual expletive. But Kesha is still trashy on her own terms, shedding a jacket and unbuttoning her golden satin blouse to flaunt her cleavage for her riff on the old snake charmer song, “Take It Off,” and the kids in the Xcel went bananas for “Tik Tok,” an oldie about getting wasted a lot of them probably first heard as small children.

In a night that was all about efficiency, “Praying” was a genuine show stopper. Where pop songs are often overwhelmed by a celebrity’s uh, shall we say, reputation, Kesha’s public struggle against Dr. Luke only enriches the emotional heft of that power ballad. An exercise in epic forgiveness that’s as cruel as a knee to the solar plexus, “Praying” allows anyone who’s ever been wronged to hope that person, whether abuser or mere heartbreaker, will sink so low he’s forced to turn to some god or another in panicked desperation. In 2017, I’m sure we all can think of someone to dedicate it to.


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