New York radio station Z100’s annual Jingle Ball generally serves as a pop debutante party, spotlighting the past year’s biggest stars alongside artists given a song or two to make their case for a longer set next year. Text messages proclaiming love for the performers and happiness about just being there bracket the stage; deep cuts aren’t explicitly forbidden, but artists rarely have enough time to incorporate them into their sets.
The 2012 installment of the Jingle Ball, headlined by Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and One Direction, was in part a testament to the outsourcing of the American teen-idol market to other countries – not too foreign, mind you, but far enough from American soil to at least require a passport. One Direction, this year’s teen-idol sensation and a product of Simon Cowell’s UK X Factor, opened the show; Justin Bieber, who hails from Canada, closed.
One Direction’s brief opening set was polished yet ramshackle, the five members mugging for the cameras that blew up their fresh-faced visages to arena-worthy size. Their bright pop-rock won the crowd over from note one; that they’d headlined the same arena a few nights prior didn’t seem to faze them much, as their between-song patter was full of effusive praise for every American who’d ever supported them, from the radio station to the fans. One Direction wasn’t the only UK X Factor product to get exposure: the attitude-stuffed Cher Lloyd came out and performed her defiant breakup anthem “Want You Back,” while the fedora-sporting Olly Murs presented a brand of dancepop that split the difference between early-Nineties blue-eyed soul and White Town’s minor alt-rock hit “Your Woman.”
Bieber closed out the night with a brief set that drew on his recent release, Believe, and his 2011 holiday album, Under The Mistletoe. Notions that the crowd might be split between the two teen idols bookending the show went out the window when he arrived on stage to a frenzied mass of screams. The gorgeous dubstep-tinged devotional “As Long As You Love Me” was the set’s highlight, showcasing the ways that the singer’s voice has matured into something like crushed velvet, as did the Timberlake-nodding “Boyfriend.” And when Bieber took off his shirt during the show-closing performance of “Baby,” the crowd reacted as if they’d been given a huge present.
Which isn’t to say that America was totally unrepresented. Taylor Swift’s set came early in the evening, but she got a headliner’s reception; she vamped and posed throughout her set, backed by a phalanx of dancers who seemed to come straight out of a bedroom-singalong fantasia. Despite her proclamations during Wednesday’s Grammy concert that Nashville was her home, her set was almost defiantly pop. The anguished-wail breakdown on “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which is accompanied by a somewhat dubstep-inflected burst of electronics on records, meshed well with the quietly pleading “You Belong With Me”; her band’s treatment of “State Of Grace” could have slipped into an alt-rock station’s “Remember the Nineties ” weekend without raising too many eyebrows.
The arena-emo outfit fun., coming off nominations in all four of the Grammys’ big-tent categories (Album, Record, and Song of the Year, as well as Best New Artist), blazed through a three-song set of cuts from their album Some Nights. The updated Irish drinking shanty “Carry On” and the triumphantly tragic “We Are Young” had the fairly underage crowd singing along like they’d all been regulars at the same bar for decades. Ne-Yo’s album R.E.D. might split the difference between the R&B he came up with and the four-on-the-floor dance-pop he’s had chart success with, but his Jingle Ball set relied heavily on the latter, and was capped by the coaxing “Let Me Love You.” And as a way of giving the night a sense of history, Jason Mraz came out and played a pair of songs that included the strummy love song “I’m Yours,” which spent the entire calendar year of 2009 on the pop charts and which is a pretty direct inspiration for Bieber’s similarly jaunty “Mistletoe.”
The night’s rising star was the British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who only ranked a two-song set but whose imprint was felt throughout the night. He co-wrote One Direction’s self-esteem-boosting “Little Things”; he came out to assist Swift on “Everything Has Changed,” a Red track he assisted on. Screams greeted every mention of his name; his time on stage was accompanied by much yelling as well. Whether or not Sheeran, an unassuming, youthful-looking dude with a guitar whose strumming has a strong hip-hop influence, will serve as the new model for teen idols will be up for debate in 2013, but he was certainly the evening’s breakout star.