My annual trip to the Z100 Jingle Ball is like an anthropological expedition. The number 1 radio station in the country, Z100, and Clear Channel aka I Heart Radio present the top pop acts of the year to 16,000 screaming teenage girls and the adults who bring them to Madison Square Garden. The shrieking is so high pitched you expect dogs to come running from all over Manhattan.
The five hour show was a comprehensive survey of the good, the bad, and the ugly of what kids are listening to on what used to be called Top 40. What you learn mostly in 2015 is that there are no instrumentals and hardly anyone plays an instrument with any proficiency; the singing is mostly loud; the songs are monotonous and sound largely the same; and it doesn’t matter.
But let’s be positive: Demi Lovato turns out to be quite the singer, a real rock belter on a par with Heart or Linda Ronstadt. If only her material were better. Nick Jonas and his brother Joe, separately, are more interesting that anyone knew and more talented. Nick in particular has a solid band and a real penchant for blue eyed funk, with a wicked falsetto. The Weeknd is more than “I Can’t Feel My Face,” has a haircut styled by Al Sharpton, and is the real thing. (I’d like to see him in his own show, smaller venue.)
There were some driftier moments. I’m a Selena Gomez fan, but she seemed wide of the mark tonight. Fifth Harmony was just loud. 5 Seconds of Summer could be a great pop rock band if they could focus, and get rid of a song that borrows from Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
Shawn Mendes, who’s 17 and has been performing for a year, was the star of the night. He plays acoustic guitar, and sings by himself. He presents clean cut and a little boring, but once he starts playing and singing, watch out. This is a talent who must be cultivated carefully. He sang three songs solo, then was joined by a band and Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello for “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” their hit. Mendes was the only other artist besides Charlie Puth who actually played an instrument, and played it well.
And then there’s Charlie Puth. Someone should sign him now to play Neil Sedaka on film or stage. He’s Sedaka, Billy Joel, Michael Feinstein, Robert Morse, and Gavin DeGraw all rolled into one. He also strongly resembles Charlie Walk, the famed record exec at Republic Records. He makes it seem like he just stopped by, and has better things to do, but his parents asked him to play a few songs.
Hailee Steinfeld is an actress. She turned 19 on stage, she announced. She’s had a hit single this year, but she’s really like Shelley Fabares. I don’t quite see it. Hailee has to get back to acting. But I admire her True Grit (she was in that movie).
Fetty Wap was, unsurprisingly, a bust. R City impressed by playing hits they’d written for others. I don’t get Calvin Harris and Zedd, two djs, but the kids loved them. Tove Lo, a female singer, was fine. Conrad Sewell was a mystery.
One last thing: these performers need songs or need to learn how to write them. Demi Lovato is wasting her time on crap. She needs real guidance and she could jump out of the pack. I thought she’d be some twerpie Disney cast off. But damn, I’d love to hear her sing Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” or Heart’s “Crazy for You.” Bonnie Raitt should kidnap her and take her to a studio.
PS Z100’s Elvis Duran has lost a ton of weight and looks a million bucks.