Introduction: Tween Prophecy
There is a skinny teenage girl pounding on the window of the American Airlines Center. It’s just past 5 p.m. on a Monday evening. The knocks are amplified by the fact that the venue is not yet open to the public. Eerily, her thudding white knuckles create an echo in the mostly empty building. Just inside, a handful of media people and PR agents swarm lightly around a long table, squinting as the sun sets beyond the jammed freeway. Nobody looks at the girl. It creates an awkward scene, and yet I feel I’m the only one paying attention. The people checking passes behind the table are probably long inoculated to this miniature display of fan hysteria. The locked-out teen is holding a small paper sign that reads simply: “AUSTIN MAHONE.”
I would come to know this quickly rising singer’s work in sample form by evening’s end. He would perform a brief set among 11 acts who had been booked to play KISS FM’s “Jingle Ball,” a charity event that crams an improbable list of headliner-worthy pop stars on a single bill. Dallas is the lone city out of 11 where the Jingle Ball benefits a charity outside of Ryan Seacrest’s foundation. This is in deference to the influence of the late Kidd Kraddick, who will still hold some influence here for the foreseeable future, and the show was partly a tribute to the DJ.
The media professionals in the lobby of the AAC were quiet and well-behaved, like a tourist group getting ready to view historic ruins. But the girl on the other side of the glass was both haunting and prophetic, a muffled warning of what was to come.
The Red Carpet
(Where Selena Gomez Stirs Controversy by Doing Absolutely Nothing)
We are gently shepherded, one group at a time, up to a clinical yet red-carpeted room, deep within the bowels of the AAC. Photographers share stories of their work-related exploits. One camera-clutching gentleman brags that a Harlem Globetrotter once threw a towel over his head. WFAA is there, so is the CW, Getty Images, and the Spanish-language Voces Magazine.
The first artist finally arrives and it’s SoMo, a singer from Denison, TX. SoMo is somewhat of an old-school showbiz soul, in that he made his name on medleys and covers, mostly by current stars such as Drake and The Weeknd.
As usual, the artist claims to be “From Texas,” but doesn’t say where. That’s okay, SoMo. Whether it’s Frisco, Plano, Sanger, or Buda, there are many places in this state that garner immediate ridicule. Even Houston, unfortunately.
“I didn’t really plan this. It just kind of happened,” he tells a reporter. SoMo is asked what he wants for Christmas. He is a better sport than most of us would be in this situation. Try asking me what I want for Christmas with a camera in my face sometime. I dare you. He describes a theoretical collaboration with Big Sean as “amped-up and fun.” Then he is asked how he’ll “bring joy to the world.”
When Selena Gomez’s arrival is announced, an audible excitement charges the room, even with the reporters who I would think know better.
Gomez is led out after an appearance by a Christmas card-perfect family from Clear Channel. She seems genuinely surprised by the attention. “Hi, everybody,” Gomez says. “This is legit. Sh*t.” A WFAA reporter asks about her tradition of eating at Cracker Barrel.
She hints about a collaboration with Taylor Swift, but doesn’t give a date. She just suggests that one may be happening. She says that the two are not really making music at the moment, and at this point, they could probably get away with never making music again if they felt like it. Just turn in some film appearances; the modern versions of Blue Hawaii, Cool as Ice, or Performance. Doing another cult film like the latter of those three would be best for career longevity, even if not as profitable. After all, when I met up with a pop music-hating friend later in the evening, she didn’t know who Selena Gomez even was. That is until I mentioned Spring Breakers. “Oh … weird. Cool.”
Gomez says the scariest performance she’s ever done was the Cowboys halftime show on Thanksgiving. CW33 Nightcap reporter Charlie Berens asks about a selfie she took on Instagram with no makeup. The singer seems annoyed. He jokes about how he’s “that guy.” “Don’t be that guy,” she says.
Selena is asked what she’s wearing. “Zara,” she says. A reporter from Voces asks if she plans on doing more Spanish-language albums. She claims that she is. Nearly every single reporter in the room says, “Welcome home” as the canned greeting for Gomez.
When Gomez is finally on stage, her look has transformed. She dons a wig and her Zara jumpsuit has been replaced with an all-white outfit that combines knee-high boots with a flowing transparent sash. I wouldn’t even have noticed the getup except that some blogs have suggested the singer’s moves, costume, and even her appearance on the red carpet were somehow controversial. One tisking site out of the UK even suggested in a headline that Gomez almost revealed her … “lady garden.” What I saw was an ambitious and professional set, that featured the most choreography of the evening, worthy of any major awards show. Sure there were a few too many dubstep breakdowns in the music, but I saw nothing controversial in Gomez’s red carpet appearance and certainly not during her set. The puritanical standards set for female pop stars are absolutely ridiculous.
The Jingle Ball Begins
The first act of the evening, Jason Derulo, is bragging about a man who isn’t even in the building, the rapper, 2 Chainz. There have been times in my life when I’ve wished that 2 Chainz would suddenly appear, but never more so than right now when we needed him most. That would make for some obviously more “adult” entertainment, but Derulo does his best to make things as risqué as possible. The song in question is “Talk Dirty,” so we are already treading dangerous territory, in regard to parents and children who are likely still a few years away from the “The Talk,” much less what “Talk Dirty” actually means. When the Derulo teases the crowd by clutching at his thin shirt and pulling it up the length of his obviously attended-to abdominal muscles, the screaming sounds like a coffee can of thumbscrews being fed to a bandsaw.
“Any single people in the building?” he asks. “Why, yes, there are,” I think to myself. The average age in here must be 11.
A dubstep version of Ginuwine’s “Pony” plays. “Give it up for my dancers, y’all,” says Derulo. And the crowd does. This is one polite group of thousands and thousands of people.
In between acts, commercials play for the CW, Chase Bank, and a preview for the TV show, The Originals. It’s a charity event, so sponsors are to be expected, but the commercials are a bit jarring, even in this environment. “Gotta pay for this sh*t somehow,” a parent says behind me.
Following Derulo’s handful of songs, Fifth Harmony begins, lined up with their backs to the audience. The X-Factor-originated act have their routine synchronized the way girl groups conducted themselves onstage in the early 1960s — that is if the Crystals wore leather shorts and not full-length doilies.
Certain ushers at the AAC seem amused by the crowd. One man could not help himself from crouching down to walk ass-level with a blonde of ambiguous age. His fellow usher laughs at the bit.
What a Grand Piano is Actually For
It’s only two songs into the set, and Robin Thicke is sitting at a grand piano ready to play along to a house beat. Minutes later he is standing on top of the whale-sized instrument, surely as old a trick as any in pop music of this stature. I’m impressed by the disregard. It’s like he brought the piano just to show he didn’t really need it.
I’m no purist when it comes to ripoffs and homages, but of course “Blurred Lines” was a hit. It was irresistible because it sounded like that one awesome Marvin Gaye song. We’ll see if the US Judicial system agrees.
I’ll leave it to you to decipher the implications of a sea of tweens singing along to “Blurred Lines,” with dance moves memorized to each controversial syllable. It’s the 21st Century, but we’re still somehow attempting to shake free from this mid-century handbook of aggressive male “courting” practices. I’m doing my best to be good-humored about the pop show because it’s an inarguably entertaining spectacle to which we’re bearing witness.
During OneRepublic’s set, the group decides to use Robin Thicke’s footstool for the first actual ballad of the evening (of which there are few). It’s even accompanied by cello. When the singer hits a high note, I’m surprised by the ability. But speaking of the difference between homage and copying, the group just goes ahead and directly samples M83 in the live version of their track, “Good Life.”
It’s a traditional band. Two guitars, one bass, a lead singer, drummer, keyboardist. When the band kicks in, the sound like any other post-hardcore band that’s gone a little soft or popular indie band that’s used to sell coffee and automobiles. People make fun of this music, but it’s a fine line between this and whatever supposedly edgy thing people have been downloading or streaming for the past ten years. The chord progressions are nearly identical, hence the ability to use the M83 sample.
In defense of the audience, they cheer nearly as loudly as they do for the music when it’s revealed that a dollar of each ticket sold goes to Kidd’s Kids.
“Texans are the warmest people we’ve ever met” says OneRepublic singer, Ryan Tedder. I bet you say that to that all the states.
Ariana Grande delivers the most potent threat of the evening, when it’s revealed that she will perform a selection about Christmas. This is usually the low point of any set during this time of year, and as I’ve mentioned before, this usually offends me.
Grande does a sit-down version of her track “Honeymoon Avenue,” and she is actually singing. It should be said that many of these performers are not lipsyncing. She clutches her stomach when she emotes, and I’m buying it. She could sell me a used car with 220k on it right now. But her vocals are acrobating around a marginally imaginative series of chords. How unfortunate. Like so many talents, she could stand to get a real producer or writer and put some of this excess talent to real use. She goes into her hit, “The Way.” Every single time the big popular hit is played, the crowd responds as expected.
I understand that phenomenon to some extent. After a return from Austin, I briefly worked in a bubble tea shop across from UTD. They played KISS FM all day, and it felt like listening to the same 6 or 7 songs all day. But I get it. Whenever I hear “Hey Ya” or No Doubt’s version of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life,” or, good heavens, Kelis‘ “Milkshake,” I have a knee jerk trigger response that immediately sends me back to heating up liquid sugar to make tapioca drinks. The whole playlist clicks immediately into my head. And damn, those seem like something from a classical canon right now. That’s how this conditioning works.
“We are trending worldwide on Twitter right in Dallas, TX right now,” shouts the KISS DJ. “Give it Up. Did y’all enjoy Ariana Grande? We just started the party tonight. We just started.” Wait, we’re five acts in and we’ve just started?
His introduction of Enrique Iglesias raises an eyebrow or two. “Now we’re going to bring out the next performer. Ladies, I want you to keep your panties on, okay? Try to. Keep your panties on. ‘Miami Boy,’ are you ready? ENRIQUEEEE.”
The Pop Star’s Legacy
It’s almost as if Enrique had to show up Robin Thicke, the other guy with an enormous band backing him up, by having an even more forceful ensemble. There’s a keyboard, DJ, guitarist, bassist, drummer, backup singer, second guitarist, and percussionist. Enrique would look like any other dressed-down guy running errands on a Saturday morning, except that he is almost Clark Kent-ing himself so that he doesn’t embarrass every dopey dad and sheepish boyfriend in the building. This is one of the few times in my life where I felt I had to cede the floor to a guy in a baseball cap.
His drummer uses a drum shield, because he’s just going to be that loud. Enrique runs by and punches the thick clear plexiglass drum condom. The screams are somehow inhuman and entirely too human at this point. I see looks in little girls’ eyes that I’ve only seen in war crimes documentaries.
He leads the crowd in an arm-waving fest during “Like How it Feels.” The more comfortable male legal guardians in the audience are throwing it down with their daughters, bald heads shimmering under hot stage lights.
“Show me you’re the biggest state in America,” says the Spanish-born singer. “That’s actually not true, Enrique!” I mouth into the abyss.
Iglesias is the pop star his father was and the pop star he’ll never be. His father Julio’s work was cheesy enought that it threatened to even shave a few points off of Willie Nelson’s catalog. If Nelson were to duet with Enrique at this point, it would likely go much differently. Get Rick Rubin to phantomly produce it and it may even be critically acclaimed. As I’m lost in this thought of potential classic album material, giant balloons with Enrique’s initials fill the arena. An explosion goes off.
Descent: Santa Finally Makes his Appearance at Jingle Ball
Flo Rida is perhaps the best-dressed man we’ll see all evening. He looks like something out of the Sartorialist before it started exploiting homeless people. When the jeans-referencing chorus of “Low” commences, even the writer next to me couldn’t stop dancing. Santa inevitably shows up, and he’s wearing a necklace that reads “Ho Ho Ho.”
Some young ladies are invited onstage to dance during Flo Rida’s set. Then of course, the most remarkable thing happened: they couldn’t stop checking their phones. Flo Rida has a spectrum of ladies onstage by the end of a song that includes children of kindergarten age to women who I don’t want to assume are moms, but it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be surprised.
Flo Rida gives a brief tribute to Paul Walker, and though I missed it, photographer Andi Harman said he had a 9/11 reference in the video playing behind him. That’s pretty heavy stuff for a Christmas concert.
Garnering the second most inhuman screams after Robin Thicke, was Austin Mahone. Mahone looks like a well-scrubbed department store model, a harmless singer surrounded by gravity-defying gymnasts. Mahone’s backup dancers are so well-rehearsed and contorting into such impossible shapes that this no longer feels like a concert. Most of the shows I attend are like a semi-legal street fight. This is more like corporate theater.
Mahone adds to the list of artists who have sampled Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” which in turn adds to the list of artists sampling Freddie Scott. Scott’s imprint is nearly undetectable at this point, but it’s there.
At one point in the evening, a KISS FM personality asks the audience to take the biggest selfie of all time. There’s a very utopian appeal to his plea, and in the heat of the moment, we’re convinced we can have it both ways. The big selfie, the individual blending seamlessly with the communal — celebrating ourselves and everyone else all at once. But what if this isn’t true, that this blending is not possible? Amid the sweaty crowd inside the AAC, I want to be optimistic, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is something lonely about this constant need to make everything all about ourselves, even though here we are, surrounded by friends, loved ones, and fellow pop fans. I think back to the girl’s fists on the glass door of the AAC, struggling to be noticed by the pop machine inside. Her hands are hitting so hard, but do little more than smudge the glass.