Review by Kyle Matteson with photos by Susan Woehrle
I’ll be up front here. Attending KDWB’s Jingle Ball wasn’t exactly something I thought I would ever have the desire to do – but I also wouldn’t have guessed I’d fall so hard for a Miley Cyrus album either. Yeah, you read that right, I’m a massive fan of Bangerz, and it’s not in some silly ironic or guilty pleasure way either. I’ve truly grown to love the record. While Cyrus was the catalyst for me wanting to attend this show, I went in with a totally open mind towards the other acts, some of whom I was familiar with (Enrique Iglesias, Fall Out Boy), a few I was indifferent towards (Robin Thicke, Flo Rida, Ariana Grande), and two that I hadn’t heard of until the week of the show (Fifth Harmony, Austin Mahone)
I’ve been to one other big radio show almost a decade ago, so I knew to expect a ton of sponsors and commercialism overload, but I was still overwhelmed with just how glitzy the whole operation was. Jingle Ball is now a proper tour put on by iHeartRadio (i.e. Clear Channel) and a benefit for the Ryan Seacrest Foundation. The well-oiled machine that was their rotating stage and super fast changeovers between acts was even worthy of its own prime time TV special. I knew the show would skew young (average age 16-19), and mostly female, but I was still sort of shocked with just how many girls were at the show – somewhere around 75% or higher.
The first act of the night were X-Factor alums Fifth Harmony (they finished 3rd in the 2012 season), made up of five women between the ages of 16 and 20 (thanks internet). Their material was a bit safe for my taste, but I was impressed with their vocal chops and choreography. The highlight of their 15-minute set was a great cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Red,’ which the young audience ate up.
After the shortest set changeover I’ve ever seen (2-3 minutes at most), Robin Thicke was introduced to roars of the 30- and 40-something women in the audience. Thicke has been performing and writing music since he was 11, and has seen a good amount of chart success in the past (mostly as a guest vocalist), but 2013 is the year he became a household name with his catchy (yet somewhat controversial) hit ‘Blurred Lines‘. I’ll admit I personally enjoy the song, but I also fully understand the concerns many people have about the lyrics being creepy and borderline “rape-y”. That said, many of the lines on Kanye West‘s latest record Yeezus made me feel far more uncomfortable than the suggestive *wink wink* lyrics on ‘Blurred Lines’ – but that’s a debate for another time.
On stage, Thicke comes off the bastard child of Michael Buble and Justin Timberlake (with little of Buble’s charm and almost zero of Timberlake’s sex appeal). After two songs, Thicke played what many dubbed the ‘Song of the Summer 2013.’ It seemed like most of the audience felt differently based on their loud cheers, but I was surprised with how flat and tame the song came across live.
Up next were the odd men out, Chicago’s Fall Out Boy, who reunited earlier this year to “Save Rock and Roll” after a four-year hiatus. While their brand of pop punk isn’t exactly a KDWB playlist mainstay, it was clear from the loud cheers that many people still remember them from their heyday a decade prior. The band wasted no time getting the crowd going by playing their biggest hit ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down‘ and not letting off the gas one bit, ending their six song set with their current single ‘My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up).’ I heard the song on the radio and TV this year but had no clue it was theirs, as it’s more of a “Top 40 Radio Friendly” version of their usual pop punk/rock sound. Bassist Pete Wentz took to the mic at one point to say that he loved going to Camp Chippewa in Minnesota during his summers growing up as a kid in Chicago, explaining how he loved to “skinny dip and purify himself in the lake,” – in reference to Prince‘s 1984 film Purple Rain.
20-year-old Nickleodeon pop princess and Mariah Carey disciple Ariana Grande was by far the favorite of the younger members of the audience. What her songwriting might lack, she more than makes up for in vocal prowess and charm. Her take on Wham!‘s 1984 Christmas classic ‘Last Christmas‘ was one of the more adorable and memorable moments of her four-song set.
Prior to the show and on paper, 38-year-old Enrique Iglesias seemed like another “odd man out,” simply because the last big hit of his I could recall was ‘I Like It‘ featuring Pitbull from a few years ago… and because I wrongfully assumed his lack of appeal to the younger crowd. Iglesias had the entire audience eating out of his hands the duration of his 20-minute set, despite not playing most of his biggest hits (‘Hero,’ ‘Bailamos,’ ‘Rhythm Divine,’ etc.). His live band were also the best sounding and most energetic of the entire lineup, while Iglesias bounded back and forth working every inch of the stage to get the crowd waiving their hands in the air. Even if much of his music isn’t my thing, I gained massive respect for him as a performer.
Rapper Flo Rida opened his set with ‘Good Feeling,‘ getting the crowd going from the start. His innuendo hit song from 2012, ‘Whistle,‘ got the entire crowd singing along, but it was the set-closing song ‘Low‘ (you know the one “…them Apple Bottom jeans, Boots with the Furrrr”) that truly set the crowd off. Prior to this he invited a good 30-40 females on stage to dance along, and at one point even allowed a young girl to sing along on the mic.
One artist whom I was not at all familiar with until the day of the show was Austin Mahone. From everything I read about him and observed during his set, he’s definitely mining the same turf as Justin Bieber. However, from his insanely short three-song lip synced set, he’s going to need some more time and a lot of great writers behind him before he makes any real impact. My personal view aside, judging by the Beatlemania-esque deafening screams he received from the youngest girls in the audience, it might not matter too much.
Finally, the moment we (read: me) were all waiting for. Miley Cyrus’ introduction was ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas‘ being played on a giant overhead screen, interrupted by Cyrus and her entire entourage (her backing band, backup singers/dancers, a woman dressed as a giant Christmas tree, a dwarf dressed in a shiny silver outfit complete with Madonna-inspired cone bra, and what else? A drunken Santa Claus of course). Cyrus strutted on stage wearing a giant fur coat – which seemed like an over-the-top opening that even might have made Andrew Dice Clay blush. Her 2009 breakout hit ‘Party In The U.S.A.‘ set the bar pretty high right out of the gate, but it was the first of her two massive 2013 singles, ‘We Can’t Stop‘, that truly got the party started.
The one somewhat surprising and softer moment of Cyrus’ six-song set was her impressive take on Lana del Rey‘s ‘Summertime Sadness‘. I’ll admit I’m fairly indifferent to del Rey and find her monotone vocal style a bit hard to endure, so it was nice to hear someone with a huge voice sing one of her songs. The Bangerz lead track ‘Adore You‘ followed, and continued to show off Cyrus’ powerful voice. Despite the puzzling video, ‘Wrecking Ball‘ is not only the best pop ballad of 2013, it’s also one of the best ballads in recent years. While the song is already rather anthemic on record, nothing prepared me for just how massive it would sound in a huge arena with tens of thousands of people singing along. Cyrus’ band stretched the song out as her set (and the show) wound down, only to end with confetti and pyrotechnics. Cyrus wasted no time reminding everyone in attendance that she would be back on her proper Bangerz Tour in March at the very same venue, and I would imagine almost everyone in attendance at Jingle Ball will be hoping to attend her full show. I know I will.