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.”
1997: Chumbawamba Enters the Zeitgeist
The show cemented itself as an annual event during its second year, with the sound of popular music itself was in a transition, slipping away from the hold alternative acts previously had on the charts. For Poleman, whose main goal was to keep Z100 both relevant and afloat, the intersection of radio programming choices wound up naturally influencing the actual show on numerous occasions. That includes celebrating a then-obscure British pop act whose debut smash was about to lodge itself as a global earworm.
“I always have tried to forecast who could be on Jingle Ball in the future in the same way I add songs to the radio. You kind of have to have a feeling and see them connect with the audience to try to project what’s really going to be at a fevered pitch by the time December rolls around. In the summer of 1997, Chumbawamba’s 'Tubthumping' was one of the songs we put into rotation the summer. I remember Monte Lipman coming to my office and saying he had this new track from an act he was thinking of signing. I said, 'If you give me that track, I will put it on the radio right now.' He did and then I think he ran out to his car and signed him that afternoon. Chumbawamba was one of those artists that you could feel was becoming a phenomenon and it later became a great moment at Jingle Ball when they performed that December. At that point it was already a No. 1 record.”
1998: A New Era Emerges
The ball’s third iteration marked what would become an explosion of new pop acts and fresh talent, boosted by a wave of boy bands and female solo acts that would dominate the charts and define a generation.
“In a lot of ways, Jingle Ball was the birth of a lot of different facets of pop culture. If you think of the artists who’ve done their first major performance of a hit single, it’s a pretty incredible list. I remember *NSYNC at Jingle Ball in December 1998; it’s hard for me to say that it was their most important performance, but to play at Madison Square Garden is something that most artists dream of. To finish off their year with their performance, well before they were doing stadium tours, was special. It was also the same show Britney Spears performed first, after “...Baby One More Time” came out just two months earlier. Before then, Z100 went through this period when we were playing a lot of alternative music. So when *NSYNC, Britney Spears, 98 Degrees and Backstreet Boys all emerged on the scene, I was quick to embrace them on the radio station and at Jingle Ball. You realized that something was changing in pop culture. It was a return to pure pop, and it was a defining moment. I remember the energy in that room was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and then it was year after year of that kind of thing.”
2002: American Idol to MSG
As a new century emerged, Jingle Ball resolutely became a musical milestone with the 1998 show and its new bubblegum pop artists setting the scene for a bevy of future Balls. It also turned into the ultimate validation of an act’s successful year, most obviously felt in 1999 when both the Baha Men hit the scene with “Who Let The Dogs Out” and Barenaked Ladies exploded with “One Week.” Two years later, a new televised talent competition churned out another future Jingle Baller.
“Kelly Clarkson won American Idol in September of 2002 and lo and behold was on the Madison Square Garden stage a few months later. It’s cool to see those moments. That year she went from that open call to playing on the same bill as Justin Timberlake and Destiny’s Child. That’s a pretty cool things for someone who had just won that contest.”
2008: From Fans to Performers
As Jingle Ball continued its grip on culture, the show wound up inspiring a variety of future superstars who’d dream of being a featured performer.
“Having conversations with artists who used to come as fans is really fun. I’m remembering specifically in December 2008, when Lady Gaga did ‘Just Dance’ and Katy Perry did ‘I Kissed a Girl.’ They were on the same Jingle Ball. Lady Gaga will tell a story about how she grew up in New York listening to Z100 and would come to the show and dream of being on the stage. And lo and behold, she made it. She talked about it the night she first did the show and said, ‘Hey, I was out there with you this time last year and now I’m living my dream.’ Katy Perry had the same experience too. It’s really cool to see them go from being a fan of the show to a highlight of the show.”
2014: Mendes Takes the Stage
By 2014, a young male artist who’d made his name on the video-sharing application Vine was given a shot on the Jingle Ball stage.
“The first time Shawn Mendes performed as he was breaking out on Vine as this teen phenomenon was a major moment. We didn’t give him a full spot on the lineup; he just came out with his guitar and sang acoustically and watching the crowd go nuts. It’s really cool to see these moments; when you look back and see how many people have performed here you realize it’s every iconic pop artist who’s been on that stage at one time or another.”
2016: Camila Breaks Out
Long before Camila Cabello broke away from Fifth Harmony to stake a musical claim of her own, a last-minute duet between her and Machine Gun Kelly marked an early beginning of her transition to solo star.
“One of my favorite surprise moments was when Fifth Harmony and Camila was getting ready to break off. In 2016 it first time she came out solo with Machine Gun Kelly, and that was a fun collaborative moment. They came out and did ‘Bad Things,’ which was a performance we put together the day before. Machine Gun Kelly was up in Canada and we called him and said, ‘Hey, can you get down here?’ and we made it happen. I remember seeing the excitement from both of them; it was a moment in time that I don’t think I’ll ever forget or they’ll ever forget, because I was standing right next to them as they were walking out on stage. Those are the performances that are really cool to be part of.”
2018: Cardi and Shawn Step into the Spotlight
With hip-hop ruling the charts, and Shawn Mendes fresh off his successful transition from teeny bopper to serious adult artist, the 2018 iteration of Jingle Ball is on track to continue its tradition of both star-making and pop validation.
“We’ve had quite a year with Cardi. She won Best New Artist at the iHeartRadio Music Awards last March and she performed as well. To watch from that point on her continue to snowball her success more and more, to end it at Madison Square Garden is quite a statement. She’s certainly been one of the biggest artists of the year.”
Even More Merry Jingle Ball Moments:
2000: Avril Lavigne: ”I remember, when she was getting ready to release her album and was standing with us at the side of the stage saying ‘Wow, this is an amazing event. I’d love to play it someday.’”
2001: Jay-Z: “I think having him at that point in his career was an unbelievable moment.”
2009: Taylor Swift and John Mayer team-up: “I think this was during the speculation about if they were seeing each other around then.”
2016: An All-Star Christmas Duet: “This was the year when DNCE, Fifth Harmony, Charlie Puth, Hailee Steinfeld, Jake Miller, Daya, Sabrina Carpenter, Tinashe and Rita Ora all did 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town.'"