The live Christmas concerts of pop radio stations – the Jingle Balls and their competitors – serve as report cards on the state of the Top 40 and annual demonstrations of terrestrial radio’s muscle. Last night, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, the Jingle Ball season got started early, as CBS Radio organized their annual “We Can Survive” benefit – which contributes the modest sum of $2 from each ticket to help breast cancer survivors – hosting brief sets by Sia, Paramore, Iggy Azalea, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande, and Pharrell Williams, plus special guests Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani. Lessons gleaned from a consistently entertaining evening of music mostly sung by women: Taylor Swift is ready to take over the pop world (although it remains to be seen whether it’s ready for her), you get more bang for your buck with a confetti cannon than a T-shirt cannon and there has never been a better time to invest in a line of crystal-encrusted clothes.
Swift, just 24, was the most commanding personality on the stage and the one most frequently name-checked by other artists, many of whom seemed aware they were playing in her shadow. She did four songs: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the new “Out of the Woods” (from her upcoming album 1989, which she made sure to mention was out on Monday), “I Knew You Were Trouble” and recent single “Shake It Off.” Interestingly, “Out of the Woods” varied her approach the most, sounding like a moody Peter Gabriel track. Swift worked the crowd into a sing-along froth, danced like a happy antelope and used the word “frenemies” when introducing “Shake It Off”: In short, she seemed like a presumptive pop queen just waiting for her official coronation.
While Swift is no longer even paying lip service to the country market, Lady Antebellum has been careful to maintain their identity as country stars, even after having smash pop singles such as “Need You Now” and “Just a Kiss.” Although their music sounds more like Imagine Dragons than Johnny Cash, they made sure to name-check “country radio.” And when they hyped Swift, who followed them onstage, singer Charles Kelley joked, “She’s coming up soon, but she’s got to listen to us first, damn it.”
Sporting a blue hat, Pharrell Williams closed the show – and he also opened it, with a 5 pm set dubbed “Citi’s Pre-Show Soundtrack Experience with Pharrell Williams.” (It was that kind of corporate-sponsored event.) The opening set was nominally a soundcheck, but since Williams chose to do it with his troupe of female dancers but not his live band, it was more an opportunity to see those dancers precisely executing moves while dressed in workout clothes, with Williams shuffling around the stage as if he had low blood sugar. When he returned to the Bowl stage five hours later, however, the glucose was back, and the performance included solo hits such as “Happy” as well as his production work on “Hot in Herre” and “Blurred Lines,” which he sang more deftly than Robin Thicke. For “Hollaback Girl,” he was joined by his fellow Voice judge Gwen Stefani and happily shifted into being her hype-man. Of all the performers, Williams spoke the most about cancer, saying that it killed both of his grandmothers and praising those battling it who are “not giving up on the chemo.”
The evening’s other major guest star was Jennifer Lopez, who joined Iggy Azalea for their song “Booty” and finished by turning her back to the audience to shake her famous posterior. For the rest of her set, Azalea spat out rapid-fire rhymes in her Australia-by-way-of-Miami accent, joined by a crew of female dancers wearing black-and-white bodysuits that looked like they were designed by comics artist Jim Steranko. Azalea’s appeal often seems to be that she’s classing up baser urges – but that trick is the foundation of civilization.
During a lovely performance, Sia demonstrated that there are reasons to have your back to the audience other than showing off your gluteus maximus: She performed all her songs while facing an upstage wall, never once looking at the Hollywood Bowl crowd (although she did politely thank them between songs). While she sang tunes like “Diamonds” and “Big Girls Cry,” two female dancers in matching blonde pageboy haircuts (or maybe wigs), writhed around the stage, providing the pop psychodrama that she’s unwilling to provide herself.
A very pregnant Alicia Keys did a rousing three-song set, starting with “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” – when you can get a Los Angeles crowd standing and cheering to your tribute to New York City, while you sit at the piano, you clearly have some juice left in your career.
Ariana Grande is the pop princess of the moment, and while it remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a brilliant career or just her one glorious season, she seems to be enjoying the ride. Although she complained of technical difficulties, she gamely persisted with her set: A wire dangled from her body for most of the show, suggesting either that she had a malfunctioning earpiece or is actually a cyborg. Grande opened her set with “Break Free,” but apparently couldn’t convince Iggy Azalea to stick around a couple of hours to reprise her guest appearance.
Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams had the most distinctive fashion choice of the night: She wore a costume that made her look like a superhero, with a pink cape and a bright blue lightning bolt on her chest. Cape-plus-rock band usually means Zeppelin, but here, it felt more like Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. Paramore, who once identified as alt-rock, now have at least one foot in the pop world, maybe an entire leg, but here their style-hopping and their commitment to tuneful hard rock put them in the tradition of Blondie. And Williams’ fashion sense implied that the top 40 is a world that anyone can visit, at least if you wear the right clothes.