Last night, the annual Z100 Jingle Ball concert at Madison Square Garden celebrated the year of the underdog, collecting most of pop’s unlikeliest success stories under one roof.
Just a year ago, who would have guessed that the druggy narrator of dark, despondent sex stories, the Weeknd, would close out a family-friendly pop show with radio edits of his multiple Number One hits? Five years ago, who would have placed a bet that Disney’s biggest stars would birth two solo divas in Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez? Who would have known that purity ring-wearing boy band the Jonas Brothers would produce one guaranteed solo superstar in Nick Jonas and another lead singer of the year’s best live bands, DNCE? Who would have ever predicted that an app built upon sharing six-second videos would provide a road to fame for a 17-year-old singer-songwriter named Shawn Mendes?
The surprising paths to fame gave weight to a line-up which presented a five-hour marathon of music and screaming girls who began their night with a shot of energy in the form of 5 Seconds of Summer. The teen dreams were an early kick in the groin, playing their biggest hit to date, “She Looks So Perfect,” before powering through singles off their sophomore LP, Sounds Good Feel Good, and mulling over the fact that in a year, they will have headlined the iconic Garden on their own during their 2016 tour.
Tove Lo may have been the night’s wild card, serving dark, Weeknd-y pop in the form of infectious hits like “Talking Body” and “Habits (Stay High).” She strutted across the stage while being one of the few acts to rebel and not even attempt to edit lyrics like “If you love me right, we fuck for life” for the family-oriented audience.
Following the strong start, R. City, Charlie Puth and Conrad Sewell took the stage to the night’s most tepid responses — though the audience lit up for Puth’s mega-hit “See You Again” and when R. City played the hits they had written for other people, like Miley’ Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” and Rihanna’s “Pour It Up.”
Following was DNCE, Joe Jonas’ new funk-pop band that’s still finding its audience but has no problem putting on an excellent stage show. The band was pure fire for a three-song set that devolved into blissful chaos during single “Cake by the Ocean” when a sea of dancing Santas were welcomed on-stage. Bassist Cole Whittle, wearing what appeared to be JNCO shorts, played his instrument on the back of one Santa while Jonas ran deep into the audience, performing from the 100s section before “We Are the Champions” closed them out.
The real showstoppers, however, were Zedd and Calvin Harris, who are probably the most comfortable of all the Jingle Ball acts with keeping an arena in the palm of their hands. Zedd came first, getting single “Beautiful Now” out of the way before playing his many radio hits, including “Break Free,” “Stay the Night” and “Clarity.” He welcomed fellow performer Selena Gomez out for their hit collaboration “I Want You to Know.” Later in the evening, Harris brought just as much energy and drops as he transformed a pop concert into EDC. Both proved that EDM at its best is pop served in its purest form, something unifying and unrefined in its delivery of raw fun.
After Hailee Steinfeld celebrated her 19th birthday with a pair of singles, the year’s biggest teen heartthrob, Shawn Mendes, was welcomed to the stage by some of the night’s loudest cheers. Live, Mendes’ Ed Sheeran fandom comes alive as he sang and semi-rapped through “Something Big” over an acoustic guitar. His voice soared during “Stitches” and he welcomed Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello out for their dramatic duet “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
Sitting on a golden throne as he elevated an injured leg, Fetty Wap followed Mendes with a criminally short set of only two songs, “679” and “Trap Queen.” Wap made up for being on-stage for less than 10 minutes by making his way off he throne to throw money into the crowd during “Trap Queen.”
Over the rest of the evening, Joe Jonas’ fellow Disney alums dominated the stage, proving to be the most confident and veteran performers of the night. Selena Gomez’s set brought the Cabaret vibes as she performed with her troupe of male dancers, which included Les Twins, of Beyoncé fame. Nick Jonas could have easily headlined the evening as the youngest Jonas Brother has continuously proven to be an assured and strong solo performer with a lovable but sexy stage presence. While singing “Teacher,” he covered Bel Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” which got the parents on their feet just in time for his biggest hit “Jealous.”
Later in the evening, Demi Lovato took to the Jingle Ball stage for a collection of tracks from her latest LP Confident as well as older hit “Heart Attack.” Lovato is a vocal powerhouse, belting out her notes with vigor. She brought a friendly, candid disposition to the stage, telling her fans that she wasn’t feeling all that confident that day and detailed a press-on nail mishap. She tripped and fell as she exited the stage but cooly played off the moment adding on to a goofy, Demi Next Door persona that the speech had previously established.
Fifth Harmony broke up the Disney alum mini-showcase and gave the night’s best dance performance. The girl group dominated their set, which began with a cover of “Silent Night” before transitioning into single “Bo$$.”
The night capped off with the Weeknd, 2015’s left-field superstar who turned away from the darker parts of his discography, sort of, to briefly act as the teen pop icon “Can’t Feel My Face” has transformed him into. Through tracks like “Often” and “the Hills,” Abel Tesfaye edited himself for the future television special and included his guest verse from Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” in the set.
The string of final performers — Fifth Harmony, Lovato, Harris and the Weeknd — were a taste-test in themselves of what the year has been: a mishmash of pop’s endless possibilities that has allowed the sound of Top 40 to mean pretty much anything that can connect.