iHeartRadio giant Z100 (WHTZ) New York held its annual Jingle Ball concert Friday night (Dec. 12) at Madison Square Garden, headlined by Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande and other stars, mostly women.
The lineup’s lean toward female acts wasn’t a surprise, given the unprecedented success that women scored in pop music and on the Billboard Hot 100 this year. Still, boys made up a significant part of the bill, from OneRepublic and Maroon 5 to rising artists Shawn Mendes and 5 Seconds of Summer.
So, who won over the audience more? Men or the many belles of the Ball? The answer is … ahead in our minute-by-minute retro diary. If you weren’t in attendance, here’s what you missed (from this attendee’s perspective).
7:42 p.m.: Arrive at Madison Square Garden. Look at ticket and see that I’m sitting in section 210, row 13, seat 13. Thirteen is, of course, Taylor Swift’s favorite number. The show hasn’t even started and she already has me captivated.
7:57: A young female fan behind me, as the “Steal My Girl” video plays on a big screen above the stage: “I wish I could date One Direction.” I have a feeling I could sit in any seat tonight and hear that sentiment.
8:06: Actor/singer Jamie Foxx kicks off the night: “You know this guy by his hats!” Pharrell Williams makes “Blurred Lines” the first performance of the show, then brings out Gwen Stefani, his fellow coach on NBC’s The Voice, to sing duet “Spark the Fire.”
8:12: When Williams launches into “Get Lucky,” the crowd hits its stride. How to maintain the momentum? Only with Billboard‘s No. 1 Hot 100 song of the year! “Happy” closes his set.
8:21: A video board shows the names of all the night’s performers. Five seem to stand out as receiving the loudest screams: Mendes, 5 Seconds of Summer, Sam Smith, Grande and Swift. A winner? Too early to tell. We’ll need to gauge response further as each takes their turn.
8:23: “Tonight is what Z100, and our listeners, is all about.” — Z100 morning host Elvis Duran
8:25: OneRepublic starts with “Secrets” and follows with debut hit “Apologize,” featuring a frantic piano solo from Ryan Tedder. Young girls in the crowd sing along to the latter smash word-for-word. Not bad, since, in top 40 terms, it’s an oldie … from 2007.
8:43: “Call me when you’re 18, honey.” — Z100 overnight talent Shelley Rome, introducing 16-year-old Mendes, who sings “Something Big” and first hit “Life of the Party,” eliciting shrieks. He’s clearly in the running for best crowd response.
8:50: Rixton performs its breakout hits “Wait on Me” and “Me and My Broken Heart.” The boy band and Mendes were essentially unknowns as 2014 began, reinforcing the speed with which artists can rise from humble beginnings to commanding the stage at the world’s most famous arena.
8:59: Calvin Harris instantly turns a chilly December night into “Summer.” He may not have stood out so clearly on the original roll call, but Harris has undoubtedly whipped the crowd into its first all-out frenzy (and one louder than that for Mendes). Hits “Feel So Close,” Sweet Nothing,” “I Need Your Love” and current smash “Blame,” accompanied by bedazzling lasers, have made the night a rave, all while Harris hasn’t sung a note live or stepped out from behind the controls. The paradox, if not definition, of EDM: The person who’s moved the least has made the audience move the most.
9:14: Oh, Billboard‘s Pop Shop-keeper Jason Lipshutz has been sitting next to me (to my right, in seat 12) the whole night. He eats his dinner: the complimentary Goldfish-brand Puffs placed in every seat. “They’re like Cheesy Poofs,” Lipshutz judges. I then wonder out loud why Cheesy Poofs don’t exist in real-life (for more than in a limited run), like how you can buy “Willy Wonka” candy bars. Jason is too busy with his new favorite food, but I think I’m onto something. (Think about it, Trey and Matt!)
9:16: Lil Jon walks out on stage decked in red and white. “How many girls will ask Santa for these guys?” he asks, quickly getting drowned out by screams as he introduces 5 Seconds of Summer.
9:22: The band performs a fairly rocking version of its new single, its remake of The Romantics‘ 1980 punk/pop hit “What I Like About You.” It will be the rockiest Jingle Ball performance, reflecting the domination of synth-pop at top 40 this year.
9:23: Fun fact: The Romantics’ single stopped at No. 49 on the Hot 100, only becoming a pop culture staple in subsequent years. Kudos if you remember that Michael Morales took the song to its highest Hot 100 peak, No. 28, with his 1989 cover. (1989? Swift’s in my head again long before hitting the stage.)
9:25: As for ranking applause, fans clearly love 5 Seconds of Summer, with reaction seemingly on par with what Mendes received (and not quite at Harris’ level).
9:30: 5SOS wraps with their breakthrough hit “She Looks So Perfect.” (Am I wearing my American Apparel underwear? Only I know. Actually, I’m pretty sure that the very dedicated MSG security guard who frisked me on the way in knows, too.)
9:36: Seth Rogen appears in a video message to the crowd, musing about the night’s stars. “Taylor Swift … 1989. I can only assume your album is about … the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s not? C’mon, Taylor, get political!”
9:37: (Realize that Rogen’s joke is much funnier than my security guard joke.)
9:43: After opening with “One More Night,” Maroon 5 segues to its recent hit “Maps,” with Adam Levine (the third Voice coach of the night; Blake Shelton ultimately never shows) clad in a red flannel shirt. “Hey @adamlevine,” a Tweet scrolling along the bottom of the stage’s video board reads, “We’re both wearing flannel, so I think we should get together and make beautiful flannel-wearing children.” Levine must have noticed, as he then removes the layer. (He just got married, remember.)
9:56: Jason: “I need more Cheesy Poofs.” (See, Matt and Trey? It’s already caught on! What are you waiting for?)
10:12: Following brief spotlights for Charli XCX and Rita Ora, Carrie Bradshaw herself takes the stage, back in the character’s home city. I.e., Sarah Jessica Parker introduces the next performer: “One of my most favorite singers, the divine Sam Smith.”
10:13: From his first soaring note, the audience is enthralled. Smith’s voice is as awe-inspiring live as it is recorded — and maybe much more so. After two hours of throbbing beats, Smith, backed only by minimal instrumentation, is drawing in the crowd like no act so far. Oddly, the sound level in the Garden isn’t as loud as at other moments (like during Harris’ set), but Smith’s balladry has managed to achieve a palpable captivation.
10:17: Smith’s smile as he sings relays a pure joy for his craft, accompanied by a humility for his breakout success this year. “I’m Not the Only One,” a reinvented “Latch” and “Stay With Me” all have the audience singing along. Reads one video screen Tweet: “MSG just lit up like a Christmas tree.” I’m putting Harris and Smith in a tie for the lead for riling up fans the most, amazingly with opposite sonic approaches.
10:38: The parade of Hot 100 top 10s brought to life continues, first with Nick Jonas’ choir-backed “Jealous” and Meghan Trainor‘s new top 10 “Lips Are Movin” and former eight-week No. 1 “All About That Bass.” Trainor’s yet another ascending act who’s finished 2014 on the Madison Square Garden stage, a surely unimaginable destination only 12 months earlier.
10:52: Live from New York, it’s … Michael Che and Colin Jost, SNL‘s Weekend Update co-anchors. Che induces some all-too-well-worn crowd work: “When I say ‘jingle,’ you say ‘ball’!” Jost stares at him. “Sorry, parents,” he apologizes. They introduce Jessie J, who sings her new single “Burnin’ Up.” Judging by the audience’s moves, the manic dance/pop song has a good chance to be a sizable hit in 2015.
11:10: It’s always a nice, fitting touch when an act sings a Christmas song at Jingle Ball. Grande gives this year’s gift, starting with her new holiday hit “Santa Tell Me.” Reindeer antlers on her barrette replace her usual cat ears.
11:17: As Grande rolls through her 2014 top 10s “Problem,” “Love Me Harder,” “Break Free” and “Bang Bang” (with Jessie J), Grande’s powerful vocals are a match for Smith’s for best of the night. Did either elicit the greatest audience affection of all? Two acts still remain.
11:24: Ryan Seacrest and Jonas introduce Azalea, who begins with her current “Beg for It.” The hits from rap’s newest star keep coming: “Black Widow” (with Ora), “Work” and, of course,” Fancy” (with Charli XCX). They solidify her fast-earned status as one of pop music’s biggest forces.
11:43: Seacrest and Duran take to the stage one last time: “There’s no one better to bring this to an epic, raging finish than The It Girl of 2014,” Seacrest beams. Duran: “And now, our own New York City neighbor … Taylor Swift!”
11:44: To thunderous cheers, Swift starts with “Welcome to New York.” It works so well, an almost pre-ordained perfect match of song and setting.
11:46: “I’m breathing the same air as Taylor Swift OMG” — a video screen fan Tweet
11:50: “New York City, I’m about to turn 25 in minutes,” shouts Swift, born Dec. 13, 1989. “All I want for a present is for you to scream — loudly.” She gets her wish instantly, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” gains backing vocals from seemingly all ticket-holders.
11:53: “You are the reason why, right now, this is the No. 1 song in the country” — Swift on the Hot 100’s leader the past four weeks, “Blank Space,” which turns into another MSG sing-along.
11:58: Swift sings “I Knew You Were Trouble.,” explaining that its reception at a past Jingle Ball left her no doubt that the trap-pop song should be a single. Another in Swift’s countless smart marketing decisions. She’s still performing at midnight, as she officially reaches her birthday. “There’s no place I’d rather be than dancing on-stage, with you.”
12:02 a.m.: “I know why you listen to Z100. And why you listen to music,” Swift says. “To escape.” Swift reminds the crowd of the importance of finding personal peace and acceptance, imploring everyone to, when it comes to any obstacle, large or small … shake it off.
12:06: As “Shake It Off” raucously puts a bow on the expanded, four-hour-plus festivities, two thoughts surface. One: Swift was the only possible choice to close the show, having surely topped all performers for loudest crowd response of the night, no small accomplishment considering the embraces of the likes of Harris, Smith and Grande. Really, all acts tonight were winners.
And, two: the same conclusion I come to at the end of every Jingle Ball: how satisfying that the medium of radio, a century after its inception, can still bring together, say, 20,000 people to share in enjoying music and, for a few hours, scream as loud as they can.