You wouldn't expect to hear Kendrick Lamar's song "D.N.A." during a midset dance breakdown of Camila Cabello's performance. But there it was at Y100's Jingle Ball this past Sunday night, drowned out by a sea of screaming preteens who knew the words to the Damn track almost as well as they know Cabello's latest hit, "Havana."
Though Jingle Ball is dominated by tweens and their parents, there's no better place for any pop fan to catch the most popular artists of the moment and those who'll likely dominate the charts for the next couple of years. Once you get past the relentless onslaught of ads for local lawyers, Tic Tacs, and Capital One cards, Jingle Ball is still a worthy talent showcase. Anyone who has reached the top of the charts over the past decade has graced the show's stages, from Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Taylor Swift.
Up first was baby-faced boy band Why Don't We, who wisely signed up for Jingle Ball to gain exposure to young fans. Now that the One Direction dudes have broken up and set off on their own, we're due for a new boy-band cycle, but the boys of Why Don't We are still pretty green and relied heavily on pyrotechnics and flash to make up for their pedestrian dance moves and lack of presence. At their young age, there's plenty of time for growth, but the jury is still out on whether they'll be anything more than another name on a long list of manufactured pop acts that audiences just didn't buy.
Jingle Ball is an ideal case study of just what separates the manufactured mainstream from artists with the potential for longevity. Songwriting appears to be the wedge that drives the two groups apart, and if that's the case, Julia Michaels should be set for a long career. Prior to this year, the "Issues" singer was best known to music fans as one of pop music's most in-demand songwriters. After all, she has penned songs such as Justin Bieber's "Sorry" and Selena Gomez's "Good for You" and "Bad Liar." She ran through a medley of those hits and sang them a hell of a lot better than Gomez can, but it was hard not to notice the tweets scrolling across the screen next to her clamoring for Demi Lovato and Charlie Puth.
Puth, also a songwriter before he became a performer, was by far the most impressive of the lot. He stood out from the beginning before a backdrop of perfectly coiffed, designer-clad performers. He looked like a Dead & Company reject — wearing a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and his disheveled hair wrapped in a dangling hippie headband — and he needed nothing more than his piano and backing band to run through his hits "Attention," "How Long," and "See You Again," his breakout song. "I wasn't supposed to be a performer," he said before launching into the song, which he originally wrote for Sam Smith. Though he came up behind the scenes, Puth is a natural performer; his voice sounds strained on the radio, but he makes it all look easy live in concert.
No doubt the crowd was most excited about the pop titans Fifth Harmony, Halsey, and headliner Demi Lovato. Halsey is new to the pop game, but she generated about as much excitement as Lovato, who's been on the scene for more than a decade. Running through a string of recent hits, including "Bad at Love" and "Now or Never," Halsey stripped the theatrics down for an acoustic piano version of her Chainsmokers collaboration "Closer," but it's impossible to squeeze any emotional depth out of a song that rhymes the words "Rover" with "shoulder" and "Boulder," and "Blink 182 song" with "Tucson."
Although Logic's comedic timing was on full display during his set, his performance of the suicide-prevention anthem "1-800-273-8255" provided the emotional counterpoint to the night. "I came from Welfare, Section 8 housing, and being homeless," he said before launching into the Grammy-nominated melody. "I hope this song is a gateway for the rest of my career. I'm coming for the pop charts. I'm coming for the mainstream."
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Logic tapped into a common theme — creating awkward moments between preteens and their chaperones. Watching parents squirm when Logic vowed not to use his fame to rap about "bitches and hoes" was a whole other show unto itself. Kids laughed awkwardly as moms darted their eyes toward sympathetic coparents, who shook their heads in agreement. It continued through Halsey's set, when her background videos depicted plenty of pill-popping and make-out sessions, and through Lovato's set, when her backup dancers mimed oral sex as she sang "Don't tell your mother" on her bicurious romp "Cool for the Summer."
Once you get past the awkwardness of listening to 12-year-olds sing along to "I'm missing more than just your body" or "leave this dress a mess on the floor," Jingle Ball is still a worthy night out. For those artists who do break out past the bubblegum-pop stage, you have bragging rights about having seen them before they blew up. And if you're not into a particular performer, 20-minute sets mean they'll be gone by the time you return from a beer run.