Throughout 2016, pop radio has been listless and drab, derelict in its duty to offer up the glossy, frothy distractions we desperately needed as reality TV and internet gossip gobbled up politics.
This year’s Jingle Ball, KDWB's annual showcase of acts not quite big enough to fill the Xcel Energy Center on their own, was slightly less enervated than a random sampling of the local pop station’s recent playlist — it’s not like we had to endure the Chainsmokers or anything. But the night’s peak pleasures were mixed in with doldrums and irritations and anti-climaxes. Look, I don't want to say that a reformed boy band pimping their upcoming Vegas residency was the high point of the evening, but, well, Backstreet’s back, all right?
To start the night, Jon Bellion was effusive with gratitude and humility in that “I hope these kids have heard my song” way common among package tour openers. (The song was the Owl City-ish “All Time Low” and the crowd wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.)
Next was Gnash, who is not, as the name might lead you to believe, a band scheduled at 1:15 p.m. on one of the smaller stages at the Warped Tour, but rather what drips from the grimy washcloth of 2016 pop when it's wrung out — a bland, twee singsong you settle on when your knowledge of hip-hop begins and ends with Drake. If you know his hit “I Hate U, I Love U,” you probably remember the hook sung by Olivia O'Brien, who joined him onstage, more than his own vanilla yammering of insights like “It's good to have feelings.” (The night’s biggest takeaway: Even the mildest white pop has grown wa-a-ay too comfortable with rap, draining that music of any rhythm, energy, or wit, and using it as an excuse to lob a bunch of words at us without bothering to come up with a melody.)
Hailee Steinfeld, possibly the first Best Supporting Actress nominee to remake herself as a sexed-up pop star, was a personable, effective delivery system for high-wattage hookcraft, from the bratty “Damn You're Such A” to the lustful “Starving” to the self-esteem anthem “Love Myself.” (You know, that very special kind of self-esteem you provide yourself with after locking your bedroom door.) Tove Lo, one of those rare toilers in the pop songwriting factory who's successfully made the leap to her own recording career, offered even sharper material. From her early hits “Talking Body” and “Habits (Stay High)” to her newer singles “Cool Girl” and “True Disaster,” she’s a veritable auteur of self-sabotaging sleaze. In skintight pink pants and a Yes T-shirt, she performed underneath a gigantic mobile shaped like a vulva, with a small cross dangling from the bottom, and she certainly has every right to do that.
Next up was the Danish pop band Lukas Graham, there to remind us how much great music has come from Sweden. They bounce out of the pocket like they learned about soul music from Phil Collins' cover of “You Can't Hurry Love,” and Lukas Forchhammer’s voice rises to a warbly vibrato that suggests Jello Biafra joining the cast of Glee. “Mama Said” could make you root for bullies, “7 Years” is a show tune about getting old written by and for people who haven't yet, and “Strip No More,” which sulks when a favorite dancer quits her job, fails to prove they’re not goody-goodies. “If you're filming it, you won't remember it,” Forchhammer admonished everyone with their phones aloft. Lucky them. I would rather listen to the screams of my dying family than the next Lukas Graham album.
In the context of tautly packaged performances, Alessia Cara came across as slightly more messily human than her peers. Her gabby and earnest introduction to “Scars to Your Beautiful” warned us not to be “brainwashed” by society’s standards, and her moody, antisocial smash “Here” is a pop song even old people can love. (Because it reminds them of Portishead.)
Speaking of old people, I don’t know why so many teen girls were screaming at the Backstreet Boys, but they precisely matched the decibel level and piercing frequency I remember hearing at teen-pop shows 15 years ago. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” still slams, “I Want It That Way” still buoyantly transcends coherence, and “Larger Than Life” still offers real insight into the symbiotic relationship between fans and stars. Their synchronized dance moves may seem practically as antique as the jitterbug in 2016, but that catalog of theirs is bulletproof.
G-Eazy is the worst thing to happen to black leather jackets since Andrew Dice Clay, who had better rhymes. A lanky Caucasian cutie who substitutes a bleeped-out “fuck” or two for menace, he capped his set with the hit “Me, Myself and I,” a sulky celebration of success, and I guess we can only be grateful that hip-hop has staved off a commercial inevitability like him for so long. Then came a phoned-in Diplo DJ set, peppered with songs he produced, like “Where Are U Now” and songs he didn't, like “Teach Me How to Dougie,” and livened marginally when MO came onstage to sing a few Major Lazer hits.
Leggy and empowered, headliners Fifth Harmony have all the right moves and all the killer hooks they need to be stars, but they still take the stage with the collective anonymity of an opening act. It’s great to hear neo-girl-power joints like “Worth It” and “Boss” coming from an actual group at a time when pop has isolated most women as solo acts. But their biggest hit this year, “Work From Home,” is everything not-quite-right about 2016 pop. It’s supposed to be about sneaking away for a nooner, but it gets stuck on a nagging chorus of “work work work work” that’s as sexy as a leaky faucet at 4 a.m.
That, I am sad to report, does not make us larger than life.
Critic’s bias: To reiterate, pop radio is in a dire place. The inarticulate simulation of self-expression that’s now in vogue lyrically is probably Drake’s fault and is certainly Twenty One Pilots’. It wasn’t just nostalgia that made the Backstreet Boys the night’s heroes — their electronic wallop takes you out of yourself and bonds you with fellow fans, while too much pop encourages you to worm your way deeper into your isolation.
The crowd: Maybe it’s just where I was sitting, but in addition to the groups of teen girls you’d expect to see, I noticed a lot more adult women and even adult couples than in Jingle Balls past.
Random notebook dump: I am hardly an expert at targeted advertising, but the Jingle Ball is sponsored by Capital One, and the arena screens kept showing commercials for Allstate – not quite the sort of sexy brands that teens are likely to get hooked by.
Check out more photos from Jingle Ball here.
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