Since its inception in 1996, iHeartMedia and New York pop station Z100’s Jingle Ball has become a cornerstone in the music calendar: a single night that’s minted stars, spawned a nationwide tour, and boosted a bevy of music’s biggest names. Considered the ultimate signifier of a breakout year for a fresh artist, the past two decades of the show also double as a history of popular music, with the festivities morphing right along with culture, from the mid-90s alternative heyday to the teen pop explosion of 1998, along the way chronicling the career trajectories of acts ranging from Justin Timberlake to Lady Gaga. Throughout it all, Jingle Ball producer and President of National Programming Group for iHeartMedia Tom Poleman has enjoyed a front row seat to the annual concert while helping make it the behemoth it is today.
With the Ball’s 2018 nationwide tour underway and this year’s main event at New York’s Madison Square Garden headlined by the likes of Cardi B, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Calvin Harris set for Friday (Dec. 7), Poleman took Billboard on a merry stroll down Jingle Ball memory lane. “In a lot of ways, Jingle Ball was the birth of a lot of different facets of pop culture,” explains Poleman. “If you think of the artists who’ve done their first major performance of a hit single, it’s a pretty incredible list.”
1996: An Auspicious, Alternative-Driven Debut
When Poleman joined the ranks of Z100 in the mid-90s, the now-renowned pop station was facing dire straits; languishing in the ratings with a threatened format change an ominous possibility.
“For me, my most memorable show is always going to be the first one. I had just taken over and the station was in 18th place. They were considering changing formats that year, which is weird to think of because Z100 is the iconic pop station of the world. We just weren't sure it was going to sustain. So the first Jingle Ball show was validating the station’s return to being a pure hit focused radio station. When No Doubt closed the show that year, I remember sitting behind the stage and feeling all of Madison Square Garden shaking from all the people jumping and screaming. It was a validation pop music was coming back. It was also a year when females had dominated the charts. I ended up booking an all-female lineup, unintentionally. We had Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Jewel, Susanna Hoff and No Doubt, so we called it Z100’s Jingle Ball: Girls Rule the Yule. It was a moment in time, because then Sarah McLachlan that next summer went with launching Lilith Fair after doing that show.”