What's Left Of Pop Music In The Miley Era?

In the shower I listen to Kiss 108, Boston’s Clear Channel-operated pop station, a fair amount, and so in addition to hearing the vowel-crazed Justin Timberlake/Jay-Z collaboration “Holy Grail” a lot I have been subjected to ads for the station’s Jingle Ball, which took place at the TD Garden this past Saturday. Miley Cyrus was the scheduled headliner; the bill also included Enrique Iglesias, Paramore, Selena Gomez, Flo Rida, Fall Out Boy, Robin Thicke and Fifth Harmony. (Each year, a cast of Clear Channel-approved pop stars whips through the country’s biggest markets, with lineups growing and shrinking in accordance with each city’s prestige level.) I was pretty excited; the Boston lineup had three of my favorite artists of 2013, and the show itself would serve as a chance for me to take the temperature of the pop world in a place away from Twitter—or at least in a different slice of it.

To attend a Jingle Ball is to put yourself at the mercy of Clear Channel and its sponsors for a solid four-hour block. Booths touting lip gloss and hair chalk line the hallways; Tweets stream above the stage; screams emanate from all around you at odd moments. Certain acts might only get a song or two to make their case. Videos play between sets—full songs, advertisements, interstitials where people who might be playing other Jingle Balls in other cities make nice with the hosts. Last year, I saw the show in New York, and One Direction kicked things off; this year, the keenly Internet-aware boy band only appeared on screen, although each time they did, the audience was enraptured. (Austin Mahone, an up-from-YouTube teen idol who inspires fierce clicking devotion among his “Mahomies,” was also only in Boston via pre-taped segments, although the screams in honor of One Direction were absolutely louder.)

The night before, in New York, the Jingle Ball bill had included Mahone, as well as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (who had the No. 1 single on 2013’s Hot 100, the smugly cheap “Thrift Shop,” as well as another track in that chart’s top 10) and Pitbull. The latter was introduced by R. Kelly. Of course, a Jingle Ball is always a partial experience as far as it being an overview of pop. Major stars who released albums in 2013 were absent entirely—Lady Gaga, Katy Perry. Taylor Swift and Lorde were partying in an entirely different hemisphere. Rihanna was in an undisclosed location, although she had the Christmas spirit. And then there was Beyoncé, whose album had provided the Internet with a jolt when it came out 36 hours prior—although she’s not as prominent on the increasingly white-bread radar of top-40 stations like Kiss 108, as her most successful singles from “4,” her last record, had only brushed the bottom of the Hot 100’s top 20.

First on the bill was Fifth Harmony, a five-piece girl group assembled by the American version of Simon Cowell’s post-Idol talent search “The X Factor.” The pop girl group prototype hasn’t really done too well over here since the Pussycat Dolls’ second record fizzled, but Fifth Harmony—who finished third on the show’s second season—seem to be taking the long, slow road to cracking Top 40 radio. “Miss Movin’ On,” their first single, bites part of the hook from Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and chews it up in service of a similarly triumphant breakup song; they gel well on stage and their voices blend nicely on their big-tent choruses. “Don’t Wanna Dance Alone” has a spring that borrows directly from “1999,” and who’s going to argue with that kind of inspiration?

Robin Thicke was next, although his stage time was limited to two songs and a little bit of banter. He seemed to be on a well-deserved “Look, Ma, I Finally Crossed Over And I Only Had To Be Misunderstood A Lot To Do It” victory lap. (“Blurred Lines” was the Hot 100’s No. 2 song of the year.) I kind of wished he’d had a chance to slow it down and do his sumptuous post-fight-sex track “Love After War,” or maybe cover Al Green like he did when I saw him perform at the Qream launch party. “I wonder who Miley’ll be twerkin’ on tonight,” Thicke glowered; it would have been more amusing, maybe, if I hadn’t heard that he’d said the exact same thing at a previous Jingle Ball, although the resemblance between his speaking voice and that of his father’s is startling. It was at this point, too, that I realized that pretty much all of the acts on the night’s bill had their origin points in the late 2000s, at the earliest; even Fifth Harmony had older roots, having been birthed by “X Factor,” which began airing on TV in the UK in 2004.

I have written about the Chicago-bred act Fall Out Boy (debut album: 2003) a lot, like a lot a lot, and, hey, why stop now. The way they’ve refined their pop-rock over the seven years that I’ve been paying closer (by which I mean “deeper than a snarky blog post about guyliner”) attention has been pretty astonishing, and their 2013 album “Save Rock And Roll” is simultaneously grandiose and self-effacing, a balance that’s as attributable to Pete Wentz’s knowing lyrics as it is to Patrick Stump’s transformation into a swaggering frontman. (Guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley are also monstrous musicians.) Jingle Ball was the fourth time this year I got the chance to see them, and the second time I did so in a venue that normally hosts basketball games; the last Fall Out Boy concert I’d attended was at Chicago’s Metro, where they blasted through the other album they recorded this year, the Ryan Adams-assisted tribute to their punk roots “PAX AM Days,” before tearing into the rest of their back catalog. On Saturday, their six-song set was truncated to their biggest hits, including the delirious “Dance, Dance,” and songs from the new record, like the stadium-sized yet intimate “Alone Together.” They had pyro (how better to accentuate the fiery bits of “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light ‘Em Up)”) and an inspirational speech courtesy of Wentz, and basically compressed all the necessary elements of an arena-rock show into less than half an hour.

Flo Rida came next, and the most notable things about his set were: 1) the way he brought out a Santa who was not white, which perhaps inadvertently injected a little bit of anti-Fox News politicizings into the proceedings; and 2) my realization that he was probably, in terms of pop radio anyway, one of America’s most popular rappers. He has a track that samples Brenda Russell, another that uses Avicii’s reworking of Etta James, and another that employs Nina Simone, so at least he is using his powers for good (?). Selena Gomez, who followed, breezed through her set and inspired the first screams that went directly into my eardrum; this happened during the sinewy “Love You Like A Love Song,” which started off as a beautiful ballad before opening up into a midtempo dance track. Her album “Stars Dance” was one of the year’s more disappointing pop releases; from the first track, it sounded enervated, like she missed something. (Perhaps the dynamic of being with a band?) She closed with that record’s big single, the teasing “Come & Get It,” and hopped offstage.

My favorite pop album of the year is Paramore’s self-titled full-length, a romp through ladies-first radio hits that uses Debbie Harry and Like A Prayer-era Madonna as two of its major touchstones. It also has ukulele interludes, the greatest love song about fidelity to hit the airwaves in years, and a big, drony finish. Paramore only got four songs to prove their case, and Hayley Williams used her time as wisely as she could—opening with “Misery Business” and pulling a fan onstage to sing that powerhouse track’s bridge, then going right into the choir-assisted “Ain’t It Fun” and leading the crowd in an extended singalong of the finger-wagging coda. (I am somewhat surprised that “Ain’t It Fun,” which is a broadside against someone unused to “livin’ in the real world,” has yet to be incorporated into some anti-millennial screed, although Williams noted that it would be released as a proper single in 2014. Get ready, pundit class.) Their set ended with the pinging, joyous “Still Into You,” the aforementioned ode to being in love for a while; that it’s fun to sing along with for even those people whose hearts are icy hunks is a testament to its construction, and Williams’ surfeit of charisma.

And then it was time for the other thirty-something man of the evening, Enrique Iglesias. He’s now one of the main dudes providing hooks for skullcrushing EDM pop (also in this category: Ne-Yo), and tracks like the bombastic “Tonight I’m Lovin’ You” seem like they’re a long way from the syrupy “Hero,” although they’re both similarly bludgeoning. Iglesias’s time at Jingle Ball ended with the Lionel Richie-interpolating “I Like It,” not to mention confetti and balloons and the sort of fanfare that normally comes with the end of a show, not the end of a penultimate set.

But! The show was actually over, the Grinch coming early to Boston via weather patterns. This weekend a storm socked the East Coast; the snow started in New York early in the morning and made its way to Boston midway through the afternoon. By the time I made my way to the TD Garden it was sticking—and it had stuck in the New York area enough to result in Miley’s trip to Boston being kiboshed because of “mechanical issues and inclement weather conditions.”

The abrupt end caused chagrin in a lot of people, including I am guessing the kid who I saw waving a homemade foam finger and wearing Mickey Mouse leggings and the other kid who had a homemade #BANGERZ shirt. Truth be told, I was a little bit relieved, if annoyed that the night hadn’t been reworked to give Paramore and Thicke and Fall Out Boy—heck, even Flo Rida—more songs. The sheer tonnage of words written about Miley in 2013 is enough to make even the most well-adjusted person run screaming into the arms of any other cultural era. And what is there even left to say about her at this point, given that the twerking Thicke teased during his set was scheduled to happen on Santa, as it did in New York the night before? This, I realize, is an unpopular opinion to have in the publish-or-perish Internet era. But sometimes you just have to tap out, and I was more than happy to let Miley and the plane that left her stranded at Teterboro do it for me.

My friend and I trudged through the TD Center, past pockets of youth who were yelling either because they were mystified or because they were happy, and walked over to the nearby Onyx Hotel to commiserate—in Boston, after all, there are few better places to mull over a night punctuated by pop that didn’t happen. As we sipped prosecco, a woman near us raved to anyone nearby that Miley was not actually stuck in New York, that she was actually next door (at a bar? Oh, well, maybe). A real-life Miley Truther? I wanted to tell her that in 2013, with an attitude like that, she could have made at least a couple of dollars from studding her theory with GIFs and throwing it up on the Internet, but I abstained.

This morning, as I was performing my toilette, I flipped on Kiss 108. After a lengthy commercial break and a spin of the screechy, irritating Zedd track “Clarity,” the morning show returned for its final segment. Kiss 108’s morning host, Matt “Matty In The Morning” Siegel, is a radio lifer who has a pleasantly grizzled manner, particularly during the 9 a.m. hour—there’s a perceptible letting loose on morning-zoo shows after most kids have left for school, and after most commuters have arrived at work, a charming vestige of the pre-satellite, pre-streaming era. The banter was akin to the sort of low-key murmuring you might hear in the aftermath of a really bad day at the office—references to doors being closed, moods being lowered, people sneaking out early. Matty and his pals played the intro that was to preface Miley’s entrance on stage, which would have been handled by David Ortiz, the hero of the Red Sox World Series run. Over and over they played it, “Miley Cyrus… YEAH! Miley Cyrus… YEAH! Miley Cyrus… YEAH!” They played it on loop until each syllable became its own, recognizable entity—and even though I loved a lot of pop music this year, the GIF-like recursion seemed utterly appropriate for a year when so much culture seemed to be endlessly circular, swirling round and round like it was awaiting the opening of a drain.





Maura Johnston is the proprietor of Maura magazine and the ILA Journalism Fellow at Boston College.