The line between respectable pop music and its gauche, teenage-courting offspring had a physical address on Friday night: Chick Hearn Court in downtown L.A. That’s the street that divides Staples Center and the L.A. Live complex, where the KIIS-FM Jingle Ball and the Grammy nominations concert offered two very different, but occasionally overlapping, schools of Top-40 success.
At Nokia Theatre, the Grammys lent their imprimatur to rising stars offering messages of austerity. The teenage New Zealand electro-pop singer Lorde had a smash with the bling-mocking “Royals,” and hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis offered a jollier riff on a similar theme with “Thrift Shop.”
But at Staples Center, Jingle Ball celebrated the tarter, girlier yet often still great stuff that the Grammys rarely acknowledge -- the ‘90s-frizzy dance pop of Fifth Harmony, Ariana Grande’s featherweight R&B, and yes, Miley Cyrus licking a Christmas tree. If the Grammy noms were about anointing new industry stars, Jingle Ball reveled in pop's quick-and-dirty pleasures. Guess which show was more fun?
The two worlds weren’t entirely separate, of course. Both Macklemeore and Robin Thicke dashed across the street to perform micro-sets at both shows (Jingle Ball was Macklemore’s third performance in the L.A. Live area in as many days). Most of the major Grammy nominations performers are also staples on KIIS' airwaves.
But this year’s Jingle Ball dived into the teenage fandom that pays the bills for the music business but gets none of its accolades.
Fifth Harmony, an all-girl quintet formed on TV's "X Factor," delivered a brief set that made a case for being one of the most exciting “manufactured” groups today (no judgment there, because who cares as long as the jams are hot?). “Don’t Wanna Dance Alone” had the big, sassy synth stabs of Clinton-era electropop. Spice Girls comparisons will run rampant, but Fifth Harmony let the irresistible songs speak for themselves.
Selena Gomez, still basking in the sadistic neon glow of “Spring Breakers,” is probably the only artist to ever perform at Jingle Ball and earn praise in Cahiers du Cinema. She’s not a strong singer but she’s a definite star. The witty “Birthday” (where Gomez professes to only party hard on her birthday -- but every day is her birthday, you see) and “Come and Get It” should be fixtures in anyone’s Top-40 catalog.
Alas, she was the first of several artists crippled by obvious sound problems, and Ariana Grande unfortunately fared the worst. She was by far the best vocalist at Jingle Ball, with a Mariah Carey melisma and a head-bopping cadence. But her microphone conked out for the entirety of her first song, leading to some justifiable frustration. “At least now you know I’m not tracked” she gracefully said when it finally came back on. Good thing it did, because “The Way” is a front-runner for the title of teen-pop single of 2013.
Maybe no one better embodied the bizarro-Grammy pop universe of Jingle Ball than Austin Mahone. He emerged from the Bieber-fever swamps of YouTube to become one of the biggest pop stars who is entirely absent from the mainstream music biz. If you’re soured on Bieber’s swaggy reign of terror, Mahone’s set probably didn’t do much for you. But he’s got a cocky presence that the right producer could strong-arm into some fun songs.
If you’ve somehow been too distracted by world events to keep up with the Miley Cyrus scandal arcana, then good for you. But for those who find a certain resonant Americana in an ex-Disney starlet twerking on a lecherous Santa's loins, Cyrus’ set was a knockout.
When she’s not trying to taste her own earlobes, Cyrus has a heck of a voice: a brassy pop-Nashville twang that shined in takes on “Party in the U.S.A.” as well as an acoustic cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” And of course, “Wrecking Ball” was an absolute monster. It’s the year’s best power ballad, embodying everything big and dumb yet smart, moving and perfect about pop today.
It may not win a Grammy, but you can bet everyone was singing it in the parking lots around Chick Hearn Court.
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