All bangers, all the time: Lil Nas X and Doja Cat steal the show at 2021 Jingle Ball

Shirtless men in shiny black-striped skirts perform onstage
Lil Nas X performs onstage during KIIS-FM’s Jingle Ball at the Forum on Dec. 3, 2021.
(Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

“This song is called ‘Old Town Road,’” Lil Nas X said, as though anybody at the Forum on Friday night might’ve been unaware. “It came out three years ago today.”

So much has happened in the public life of this 22-year-old singer, rapper and digital-marketing savant that his out-of-nowhere country-trap smash can seem like something of an oldie now — one of those tunes, like “Dancing Queen” or “Whoomp! (There It Is),” that require no introduction.

But as he reminded the capacity Forum crowd at Friday’s all-star Jingle Ball concert, a mere 36 months have passed since he posted “Old Town Road” on SoundCloud, then watched as it quickly went viral on TikTok. The rest you know: the record-setting 19-week reign atop Billboard’s Hot 100, the subsequent hits that disproved claims he’d end up a gimmicky one-and-done type, the Twitter feud with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem over Lil Nas X’s supposed threat to the eternal souls of America’s children.


For the second of four shows in Inglewood, K-pop megastars BTS were joined by Megan Thee Stallion, but the best parts of the concert were the most intimate.

Nov. 29, 2021

Now, just days after receiving five nominations for Grammy awards including album, record and song of the year, here he was playing the prime next-to-last slot at the annual Christmastime bash presented by L.A.’s KIIS-FM (and its powerful corporate parent, iHeartMedia).

To mark the occasion, he wore a fetching metallic skirt and, at least until he discarded it, a matching silver jacket.

Lil Nas X wasn’t the only new-model pop star at Jingle Ball, back in person this year after a virtual pandemic edition in 2020. The four-hour show also featured Doja Cat, Saweetie and the Kid Laroi, as well as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opening appearance by BTS, the South Korean boy band that just wrapped up a sold-out four-night stand at SoFi Stadium.

A woman in a silver bra top and harem pants sings onstage
Doja Cat performs at Jingle Ball 2021.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

Beyond their intuitive blend of singing and rapping — perhaps the defining aesthetic indicator of Spotify-era pop — what unites these acts is their internet savvy; each has used social media and streaming platforms to build an audience without having to rely entirely on the traditional gatekeepers whose assistance earlier artists needed to break through.

Yet for all the self-determination that Instagram allows, terrestrial Top 40 radio still guards access to the final levels of pop ubiquity: Though BTS was huge in the U.S. before the group received significant American radio play, it went supernova here only after songs including “Dynamite” and “Butter” began blanketing the airwaves.


Thus the band’s willingness to drop in and kiss the ring at Jingle Ball after an exhausting week of its own gigs. Charmingly dressed in a casual-Friday style, the seven members sang — what else? — “Butter” and “Dynamite” (the latter in a jingling holiday remix), accepted a birthday cake meant for the band’s Jin from one of KIIS’s DJs, then politely made their way offstage toward some less obligatory activity.

What was gratifying about the performances by Doja Cat and Lil Nas X — the clear highlights of Friday’s show — was seeing how little they’ve streamlined their idiosyncrasies now that they’re inside the big tent. Both brought an abundance of energy to the job at hand; both seemed excited to refresh a down-the-middle setting with new ideas.

A man dressed in black with an acoustic guitar sings onstage
Ed Sheeran at Jingle Ball 2021.
(Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

For Doja Cat, whose album “Planet Her” and single “Kiss Me More” are among Lil Nas X’s Grammy competition, that meant a sense of female sexual agency that pop radio doesn’t always celebrate. Whipping her long red hair as her hips shimmied under a pair of billowing harem pants, she sang about searching for pleasure in songs that moved fluidly from sparkly disco to plush R&B. The mode was seductive yet hardly accommodating: Near the end of her brief set — at Jingle Ball you get about 20 minutes to do your thing — Doja Cat did ferocious renditions of her songs “Tia Tamera” and “Need to Know,” spitting densely phrased lyrics as her drummer pushed the music toward growling rap-rock.

Lil Nas X was equally forthright in showcasing gay Black desire as he and his troupe of male dancers writhed through songs such as “Industry Baby,” “Scoop” and the chart-topping “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which he remade as a heavy-breathing mash-up with Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy.”

Like Doja Cat’s, Lil Nas X’s music roams genres freely; “Lost in the Citadel” was crisp pop-punk, while “Holiday” sounded like old-school ’N Sync. And as suits someone who came of age on the internet, he can toggle cleanly among emotional registers: Before “That’s What I Want,” a yearning number about needing “a boy who can cuddle with me all night,” Lil Nas X asked the crowd, “Who wants love?” — then added with perfect coming timing, “Well, you’re never gonna get it.”


In addition to these new stars, Jingle Ball made room for some old ones: Ed Sheeran was there to do a couple of his sappy acoustic love songs, and the Black Eyed Peas closed the show with a rapid-fire run through big, dumb stadium-rave jams like “I Gotta Feeling.” (Dua Lipa, the British dance-pop singer who represents a sort of intergenerational figure, canceled due to laryngitis.)

There were also a handful of lower-wattage up-and-comers, including Tate McRae, Dixie D’Amelio and Bazzi, who punctuated one of his Post Malone-meets-Jason Mraz tunes with an unexpectedly tart acknowledgment of Jingle Ball’s transactional nature.

“They gave me a quick set time because I haven’t had a hit in like a year and a half,” he said.