Two of the marquee performers at Friday night’s Z100 Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden—Ariana Grande and headliner Justin Bieber—performed the bulk of their respective sets with jackets hanging off of them. (Grande’s was a black fur-trimmed parka; Bieber’s a yellow zip-up hoodie.) Neither performer seemed fully able to commit to the garment, both usually wearing them falling halfway off their bodies; and each of them went as far as to discard their jacket entirely at one point, only to then retrieve it later on during their set.
This jacket-only-half-on-ness seemed to embody the evening as a whole, as about a dozen pop acts took the stage; a certain strain of lethargy, a lack of sustained vibrancy, was notable in the room over the course of the nearly five-hour-long proceedings. Audience members held up their phones to take videos because, in 2016, that is simply what one does when confronted with Hailee Steinfeld on a stage, or when Ryan Seacrest appears on a Jumbotron. “Who’s Daya?” a twentysomething standing in front of me asked when the 18-year-old up-and-comer took the stage, only to promptly take out his phone to Snapchat when the first chords of her hit “Hide Away” began.
There were, though, many attempts by performers over the course of the evening to try to “disrupt” and rile up the crowd out of its semi-stupor. During DNCE’s set, frontman Joe Jonas, without warning, sprinted deep into the audience, a bodyguard a few feet ahead of him. He sang briefly in the midst of the crowd, and then ambled back—all taking place so quickly it was possible to believe you had imagined it (when Jonas—wearing a Sonic Youth jacket—later belted a cover of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” there was a similar, “Am I sure I’m not having some sort of glitter-infused fever dream right now?” reaction from the audience). The Chainsmokers (more on them shortly) interrupted their set to ask, “Where my sexy moms at right now?” to bemused cheers. Former One Direction member Niall Horan received among the most ecstatic of receptions for his brief visit to perform his new single (“I’m only here for three minutes and 40 seconds,” he said, “so I’m going to try to make it worth it.”) The Jingle Ball organizers attempted to engineer a “moment” with its first-ever live charity-single recording, gathering DNCE, Fifth Harmony, Rita Ora, Charlie Puth, Steinfeld, Daya, and others, on stage, to record a version of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” But the stunt mainly served as a reminder of the decreasing relevance of the notion of the Pop Star in today’s market. While many who participated in that performance are responsible for some of today’s most massive pop hits, most Americans would likely have trouble identifying the artists themselves.
Grande—introduced by Chris Rock (who said that, in the context of last night’s event, he was not a celebrity but rather “just the guy who can get [his daughter] into Jingle Ball”)—wore large furry black earmuffs (in addition to the previously-mentioned oversized parka) for her entire performance. The earmuffs were a fun (and seasonally-appropriate) accessory, but, in tandem with the previously-mentioned oversized parka, the costuming may have provided a bit of a distraction from Grande’s stellar voice. “Into You”—which she delivered with appropriate verve—should have been the song of the summer; and her closing number, “Dangerous Woman,” played as a straight-up rock anthem, Grande’s wail careening past the blend of the instruments on stage. (“She’s really cute. Did you know she is five feet tall?” the tween behind me said to her friend as Grande left the stage.)
The Chainsmokers snagged the second-to-last slot of the evening, indicating that as much as some may not want to fully acknowledge or accept it, the DJ duo has very much arrived. (They were introduced by Ora as “the coolest lads ever,” and the reception in the room was enthusiastic.) The twosome—Andrew Taggert and Alex Pall—shouted out Westchester (where Pall is from) at the beginning of their set, which I imagine was the first such shout-out at a Z100 Jingle Ball in recorded history. Taggert spent most of the performance standing on the DJ table, coming off like the guy in college who talks all the time in class even though he hasn’t done the reading. The group’s commitment and confidence was impressive—they worked in Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay samples, alongside hits like “Closer” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” And to their credit—perhaps due to their recent ascension, in comparison to the night’s other performers—they seemed to be having the best time of anyone who took the stage. Brazen confidence can sometimes be infectious.
Bieber was the night’s final performer, and it was he, undoubtedly, that those in the audience were most excited to see. Curiously, Bieber was introduced by Sarah Jessica Parker (I heard someone ask who she was, and almost stood up on my chair to issue an impassioned impromptu lecture for my section). The 22-year-old has amassed a staggering collection of hits. Given the tabloid narrative surrounding him and the near-daily TMZ coverage of his various antics, it is possible to forget that Bieber has, especially in the past few years, put out some extremely robust pop songs. He performs them with a somewhat robotic precision, moving his arms to the efficient choreography while his facial expression remains semi-vacant. It can be strange watching him. He’s singing and he’s dancing and he’s certainly not in any way slacking off, but it also feels a bit like watching a wind-up doll of a pop star. In his white t-shirt and white athletic shorts (worn over black athletic pants), he has the affect of a kid who has just finished basketball practice and has decided to sing a few songs, because, why not? . . . and he’s bored while waiting for his friend to come over, anyway. Bieber does know, at this point, how to play to the audience. He smartly locks eyes with someone in the crowd at the end of “Where Are U Now,” offering a slightly devilish smile, and knows exactly which verse of “Love Yourself” the crowd wants to sing along to the loudest. After finishing his last song (“Sorry”), Bieber thanked the crowd (“I had a wonderful night tonight”) and closed, “Get home safely. Don’t drink and drive. God bless. I’m out.” And then, very quickly, he was.
Source: Vanity Fair