Sam Smith stood onstage at Staples Center and recalled that the last time he was there, in January, he was watching the Grammy Awards ceremony – from "way, way in the back."
Things, it's safe to say, have moved quickly for Smith.
Yet he wasn’t alone at Jingle Ball. This sold-out pop extravaganza was packed with acts that were barely more than a blip last Christmas: pint-sized heartthrobs like Shawn Mendes and 5 Seconds of Summer, along with young women such as Iggy Azalea and Meghan Trainor, both freshly anointed like Smith by the Recording Academy.
But all had been there long enough to know they want to stick around like the handful of veterans on the bill.
First among those was Taylor Swift, who opened Friday's four-hour show with a thrilling set of hits that demonstrated how dramatically she's changed since she emerged nearly a decade ago as a guileless country-pop naif. Back then, Swift's special sauce -- beyond her deep songwriting craft -- was her ability to connect with listeners who viewed the singer as one of them.
But Swift was most impressive in a radical reworking of one of her earliest (and most wide-eyed) hits, "Love Story," which she presented here as a darkly moody synth ballad -- precisely the type of chance every A-lister should use her position to take.
Pharrell Williams, another of the lifers at Jingle Ball, didn't try anything so risky as he rolled through breezy renditions of "Happy" and "Get Lucky," the 2013 Daft Punk hit he helped create. But the guy's charm was undeniable, especially when he brought out Gwen Stefani for an unannounced performance of their new song "Spark the Fire."
Other surprise guests at Jingle Ball included Ed Sheeran, who played "Thinking Out Loud" accompanied only by himself on electric guitar, and Big Sean and the Weeknd, both of whom joined Ariana Grande during her set of sleek, big-voiced R&B.
And then there was Smith, a beginner in fact if not in bearing. Singing his hyper-emotional retro-soul ballads -- songs about the desperate search for love -- the 22-year-old displayed a contradictory serenity that suggested he'd known all along he'd wind up where he has.
Even as he described how his romantic dalliances "never seem to go to plan," you could picture the tidy progression of his musical career: from a cheap seat at Staples to the arena's stage to -- as we're almost certain to see in February -- two arms full of gold trophies.