A small teen girl sat quietly at the end of my row, a seat between her and anyone else, as the crowd anxiously awaited the biggest musical act in the world right now, BTS, to make a brief appearance at the 2021 edition of Jingle Ball at the Forum in Los Angeles. The iHeartRadio event, put on through local pop station Kiss FM, brings the biggest stars and rising artists in pop together for an annual event, and like the 2019 edition, BTS was set to open the evening. When the music started for the 10-minute set (two songs, “Butter” and “Dynamite,” broken up with by group addressing the fans and singing “Happy Birthday” to Jin), the girl lept on top of her chair, carefully unfolding a homemade sign to wave at them, and popped out her phone to film the entire thing. When an usher calmly asked her to step off the chair, she obliged, only to get right back up moments later, the Korean pop sensations bringing out a rebellious streak generally associated with other genres.
At these kinds of events, trying to see things through the eyes of the fans is a joy. As we get older, it’s easy to forget how special it can be at a young age to see the artists you adore in person, even if it is only for a few minutes. It’s also easy to forget the time that goes into preparing for these encounters: making a sign, securing the clear bag that most venues now require, obtaining tiny binoculars (I loved that she had these) to get a better view from across the arena, feverishly posting to fan forums during the ensuing acts, and undoubtedly recounting the experience for days and even years later. And watching others in the audience absolutely losing their shit to artists like Ed Sheeran, knowing every word to every Doja Cat song, twerking for an Icy Chain from Saweetie, and witnessing the ascension of talents like Lil Nas X and Tate McRae, it’s hard not to feel heartened by the state of pop music, and for a world where we can sit in a room and enjoy them all together, again.
For BTS, who just finished an historic run at neighboring SoFi Stadium, the performance caps their most impressive year yet, and leads into one that they teased would mean more chances for the Army to see them in 2022. It was unclear if their fans knew their appearance would be so brief (I figured as much knowing how Jingle Ball typically operates, but there were gasps of disappointment when they left the stage), but their Army Bomb Light Sticks still shone brightly around the arena throughout the evening, as many of the artists made compelling cases for the Army to stick around.
Sheeran was clearly the other main event of the evening. A divisive artist in critics’ circles, it only takes a few moments of witnessing his live presence to get it. Over five songs — a couple of his recent singles, his brand new Christmas song, and classics “Perfect” and “Shape Of You” — Sheeran showed off his looping skills, a feat indie fans who’ve been to an Andrew Bird or Tune-Yards concert would be familiar with, but isn’t often seen in big spectacle pop. But this act feels different from Sheeran, someone who doesn’t need to show off his chops and techniques to win over audiences, that he still keeps it real and essentially does his entire performance live and solo (aside from keys accompaniment on “Merry Christmas”). It’s obviously not revolutionary, but it’s also enough to give credence to his bonkers big popularity.
The other biggest highlight was Doja Cat. With hits like “Say So” and “Kiss Me More,” she’s got the songs play venues of this size by herself, and she has the star power to match. Sure, the band was a little too prevelant in the mix, but her set felt like the most fully-realized short performance of the night, including putting the spotlight on her drummer for a solo and taking the time to vibe out to her own music while headbanging and flashing a huge smile. Sometimes Spotify plays don’t equate to such a strong live presentation, but Doja clearly is an artist that can succeed on all fronts. And as she likely expands that live presence in 2022, don’t be surprised if we’re not all living on Planet Her by the end of next year.
Elsewhere, Saweetie largely did a similar set to the one I witnessed a few weeks back at Head In The Clouds, and it still was great, with her recent live training showing through as she prepares for her next big step up the pop ranks (her seeming tradition of handing out Icy Chains to fans during her set absolutely rules, maybe more artists should hand out gifts from the stage.) And Tate McRae was the most impressive of the rising stars. At just 18, she has successfully lept from the dancing world to pop stardom, and through her smokey vocals, sharp dance moves, and warm ease on stage, the sky is the limit for how far she can take her art.
It wasn’t all success stories — Dixie D’Amelio didn’t show any reason for being in the same class as the other artists on the bill besides a big social media following — but for the most part, Jingle Ball demonstrated a healthy state of pop music. Sure, Dua Lipa’s last-minute cancelation was a bummer, but the night still had that unwrapping-a-gift-under-the-tree feeling, where everyone was happy to be back doing this yearly tradition again, creating musical memories to hold onto for as long as we can.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.