Every year, Jingle Ball is iHeartRadio’s tour force to show off the biggest and brightest stars in the world of pop. The lineup may change from city to city, but the constant is that fans will hear the biggest hits of the previous year, along with some stone-cold classics along the way. And 2019 was no different, offering the likes of Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift as some stops along the way. But it’s hard to imagine a more stacked lineup than the one Los Angeles received, featuring the likes of Katy Perry, BTS, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Camila Cabello, Sam Smith, and many more.
This year, though, notably felt as much as a look forward as a look back. Sure, some of 2019’s biggest hits were performed. Billie Eilish almost took the roof of the Forum on Friday night when she opened her set with “Bad Guy,” while Lizzo closed the evening’s penultimate set with her smash “Truth Hurts.” Along the way we got a solo “Seniorita” from Cabello, an extended “Motivation” from Normani, and Perry showing why “It’s Never Really Over” deserved to be a bigger smash. But for many of the artists, it felt more like an opportunity to tee up their future, which appeared equally as bright as that which had come before.
For some, the connection was obvious. Cabello was celebrating her new album’s release on that day, as Romance was only hours old when she performed tunes from the collection. And, of all the rising stars to perform on Friday (if, after two No. 1 hits and a successful group you can still be considered “rising”) Cabello showed the best chance at becoming a future event headliner. Beyond songs that hit on their first listen, Cabello is a compelling performer, singing live and commanding attention with her stage crawls and frequent hair whips.
Her Fifth Harmony cohort Normani is also full of promise, though she is considerably more raw than Cabello. Normani has been impressing of late with her dancing, and that didn’t change at Jingle Ball, though aside from “Motivation,” she doesn’t really have solo songs to write home about, at least not yet. Still, “Motivation” shows that she is a star in the making, and Jingle Ball portrayed an artist full of potential.
Elsewhere, artists like Halsey and Louis Tomlinson also teased the year to come, be it in a January album like the former or a big tour like the latter. Both also seemed to shun the standard pop turns, with Halsey leaning into her unclassifiable bravado and Tomlinson going with a Liam Gallagher via Jack Antonoff lens that feels pretty unique in the pop landscape. At the very least, these are not artists simply pushing the status quo of pop, they are giving their own interpretation of the form, making them all the more interesting because of it.
In what was mostly a stellar evening of music, with Lizzo, Cabello, and Eilish really stealing the show, there were also some clear low points. One was seen during Perry’s set. Given the largest performing block of the night, Perry’s music and stage show were terrific, with a nutcracker backing band and dancing gift boxes. But, where Perry suffered was between the songs, when she would speak through a strange, vaguely Southern accent and addressed the audience like it was literally made up of eight-year-old children. Certainly, there were a ton of kids in the audience, but I can’t recall another pop performer treating their fans as such. To me, that kind of negates what is appealing about pop music to young people, who want to be treated with the respect and honor as the tastemakers they are. Some of the banter even earned Perry a not-quite-deserved cancelation attempt from the BTS army, but that felt a little extreme. If anything, it just feels like Perry needs to find the balance of knowing who her audience is and what they want, something her contemporaries like Taylor Swift and Beyonce have mastered.
But to me, the night’s biggest blunder was logistical. On a Friday night in Los Angeles, the event had a hard start of 7:30 p.m. Taking into account that the event had a daytime show in the Forum parking lot and a massive football stadium being built next door, the act of simply parking and getting into the venue was an hour-long process. With traffic and commuting taken into account, it’s not surprising that the arena couldn’t get everyone in the door by the start time, even reportedly closing down concessions before the opening BTS performance to try to get as many people in their seats as possible.
This is all par for the course, lots of shows have trouble getting the crowd to arrive on time. But where a little hassle became a full-on debacle was in the decision to open the evening with BTS, easily the biggest artist on the bill. It’s easy to see Jingle Ball’s thinking, of opening the show with a bang, but this failed to take into account why most performances put the biggest artists towards the end, as it allows for the most people who paid to see the headliners to, you know, actually see the headliners. As we tried to get in the venue on time and heard BTS delivering their 15-minute set through the walls, countless children with BTS clothing were shut out of seeing their favorite act, with mothers straight-up lying to their kids, telling them that they were just warming up. It all felt shortsighted and something that Jingle Ball needs to consider in future iterations of the event.
Hopefully, those young BTS fans were able to be as inspired by Lizzo’s self-love anthems and Billie Eilish’s rebellious spirit, enough so to make the evening memorable despite its rough beginnings. And if the event taught us anything, it was that the pop world is constantly looking forward, toward the next hit, the next tour date, and the next big thing. At Jingle Ball, the pop world was in good hands, and the future seemed as promising as ever.