What were you doing the moment you turned 25? Probably not preening onstage at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, performing the Number One song in the country. But at last night’s Z100 IHeartRadio Jingle Ball, birthday girl Taylor Swift was the undisputed empress, especially in the final minutes as the clock ticked down to midnight. If you thought there was any chance Taylor was going to surrender the stage before midnight and miss the opportunity to turn the entire event into her own personal birthday bash, you’ve probably never heard of Taylor Swift. This girl likes to make a scene, which is why she rules the pop world.
Z100’s IHeartRadio Jingle Ball is the glitziest of the multi-artist holiday concerts, a four-hour marathon with 16 of the year’s biggest Top 40 stars, from Ariana Grande to Sam Smith to 5 Seconds of Summer. Plus Lil Jon in a Santa suit. Pharrell began the festivities with “Blurred Lines,” an odd choice, given that 2014 was the year everybody spent pretending “Blurred Lines” never happened. Even Robin Thicke testified under oath he was too high to bear any responsibility for it, then made a concept album about how sad he is. Damn.
Pharrell did “Get Lucky” in his park-ranger hat, then brought out Gwen Stefani — the two vets looked tres 1991 in their ripped jeans and cuffs. He invited some little kids from the crowd to sing and dance onstage during “Happy.” You could tell they were real random kids, not audience plants, because (1) none of them knew the words to “Happy,” and (2) they were too busy taking selfies to dance. The kids know where it’s at.
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Fashion coup of the night: Ariana Grande wore antlers for her entire set, for all the reindeer-fetish pervs in the house. The combo of the antler tiara and her puppy-dog eyes made her look uncannily like the Grinch’s BFF Max, except wearing a miniskirt and singing about becoming who she really are. Break free, Lady A!
Considering that most of us have spent the past few days listening to Ariana and Nicki Minaj talk about getting brain in “Get on Your Knees,” it was impressive to see Ariana switch back to family-entertainment mode, crooning her Christmas song “Santa Tell Me.” She did “Problem” with the taped Iggy Azalea rap, which was weird because Iggy was right there in the building, but apparently too darn busy to come out and perform her own rap. Ig, do the words “work work work” mean anything to you? (Maybe Ig was scared away by the antlers.)
Jessie J was truly impressive live, doing “Burning Up” dressed all in black. (She grinded like a goth chick dancing to “This Corrosion” at her local bar’s Tuesday Night Batcave.) She also joined Ariana for “Bang Bang.” Nicki was missed, but Ariana made up for it by rapping along live with the pre-recorded Nicki rap, the sort of bonus that should always happen at events like this.
Speaking of bonus, sincere question: When did Nick Jonas become such a strong live performer? Has he always been this way? He sang “Jealous” with a choir, wearing one of Justin Timberlake’s cool-dad sweaters. Nick always used to have a likeable sort of nervous energy about him, but tonight he was all relaxed grown-up confidence and it suits him. It totally banishes the memory of the JoBros’ infamous Grammy jam with Stevie Wonder on “Superstition.” (“Can I take this, Stevie?”) Anyway, “Jealous” was one of the highlights.
Charli XCX knew how to do a gig like this right — short and sweet, just two songs, “Boom Clap” and “Break the Rules” — with her girl rock & roll band wearing matching SUCKER outfits and someone in a rabbit costume wandering onstage for no particular reason. Charli left us all wanting more, the smart move. Meghan Trainor seems like an extremely bright and well-adjusted young woman. Sixteen-year-old Vine stud Shawn Mendes was all gawky teen charm in his acoustic “Life of the Party.” (Introducing Rita Ora, he noted she’s starring in 50 Shades of Gray, “a movie I won’t be able to see unless someone older takes me.” Eeeew.)
Sam Smith, one of 2014’s deserved success stories, has real warmth onstage — he’s a lot more dorky (in a good way) than he seems on TV and that made his four songs sound more intimate than ever. Iggy’s live set was less than inspired. Maroon 5 inspired me to hit the burger stand, though it must be noted the ladies at the burger stand were screaming out loud, “Marry me, Adam! Come get me, lovey!”
One of the best moments: Lil Jon came out in a Santa suit. (“Turn down for what? It’s Lil Jon!” the announcer said.) We all could have used “Turn Down For What” (it was Friday night!) but instead of performing, Lil Jon brought on 5 Seconds of Summer, who made a glorious mess of their four-song pop-punk set and got the loudest teen sceams of the night. Mikey looked especially fly in a Metallica shirt and his neon orange-crimson mop of hair. 5SOS did one of their great hits (“Good Girls”), one of their terrible hits (“Amnesia”), their new wave hit (a cover of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You”) and their force-of-nature summer classic, “She Looks So Perfect.”
Note: The Jingle Ball was presented by Goldfish Puffs — on every seat, there was an orange gift bag containing one (1) bag of Goldfish Puffs. They ran an ad on the video screen urging people to go on Twitter and send thank-you notes for this gift bag. Ah, right, sure. The video screen also showed the 1D “Steal My Girl” video a couple of times, which predictably got as many screams as any of the IRL performers. (BTW, isn’t Louis kinda sad in that video? There’s something poignant about watching him sit off to the side, with only the chimp to keep him company. Just like that Guns N’ Roses video where Izzy sits alone on the stairs with his dog.)
Calvin Harris spun a couple of rave bangers, yelling exhortations at the crowd and sounding oddly Durstian. One Republic, who are apparently still a thing, did a set distinguished by a jaw-droppingly pompous solo piano recital from the bro who wrote “Halo.” (“Halo” will always be a thing. )
But the night belonged to Taylor — one of the Z100 DJs introduced her as “our New York neighbor.” Taylor did not miss her chance to seize the moment — wearing a two-piece tartan-plaid outfit, with her own live band, she declared, “New York City, it’s good to be home!” Then she banged through “Welcome to New York,” which works insanely well live, as did all three of her 1989 songs. (It’s enough to make you hope she comes back to Madison Square Garden on her 1989 tour, which weirdly doesn’t have any NYC shows booked.)
After “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Blank Space,” with just a couple of minutes to go before midnight, Tay was joined by a horn section for surprisingly roughed-up versions of “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Shake It Off,” which was (maybe not surprisingly) a lot friskier live. “I think I just officially celebrated my birthday,” she told everyone. Why yes, Taylor — you did. Like a crush object in a Taylor Swift song, pop music in 2014 is most certainly a nightmare dressed like a daydream. But that’s why Taylor is the only star big enough to have climaxed a night like this. She loves the players — and you love the game.