Z100’s Jingle Ball ’09
20-Year-Old Fogy Cedes Audience to 15-Year-Old
By JON CARAMANICA
Published: December 13, 2009
Destruction, thy name is Bieber.
Not frailty of voice nor cast on leg nor uncomfortably tall duet partners could keep Justin Bieber, the pint-size, swoosh-haired 15-year-old pop moppet from Stratford, Ontario — that’s Canada, people — from his appointed duty at Madison Square Garden on Friday night: decimating the larynxes of thousands of tween girls.
It was Z100’s Jingle Ball ’09, this year’s incarnation of the annual holiday-timed but not holiday-themed revue, and enthusiasm had been waning throughout the almost-four-hour show. Mr. Bieber, who released his debut EP, “My World” (Island), only last month, had a prime slot, just before Taylor Swift, the headliner.
Ms. Swift, who turned 20 on Sunday, is a grizzled veteran staring down the late period of her underage-crowd dominance. Comparatively, Mr. Bieber, a light-voiced pop-R&B singer, is fresh meat, and accordingly, was met with the sorts of shrieks normally reserved for slasher films and kidnappings. (Last month a scheduled appearance by Mr. Bieber at a Long Island mall resulted in injuries and an arrest.)
He sang, thinly, and despite the cast on his right leg — gray, matched by a gray high-top sneaker on his left — he managed to nail the outlines of his dance routines, though he took to a stool and strapped on a guitar for “Favorite Girl,” his best song of the night. After that, Mr. Bieber’s mentor, Usher, joined him, trying not to outsing him on “U Got It Bad,” one of Usher’s old gems. But even humility couldn’t make Usher appear as anything other than a parental figure, tolerated but not embraced.
Immediately preceding Mr. Bieber was John Mayer, who is twice Mr. Bieber’s age plus two, and the oldest performer of the 11 on the bill. He took his irrelevance in self-deprecating stride, though. After performing “Crossroads,” the quixotic electric blues exercise from his latest album, “Battle Studies” (Columbia), he announced, “We’re almost done and we’ll pass it off, I promise.”
In decibels, Mr. Bieber’s only competition was Ms. Swift, whose closing performance was, mostly, vibrant and charged. And dissonant, too: her hits, teen-strife anthems like “Fifteen,” “You Belong With Me” and “Teardrops on My Guitar,” are beginning to sound much younger than she is. During a dull, indulgent medley of “You’re Not Sorry” and a cover of Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around … / … Comes Around,” she sat at, and manhandled, a piano: it was maudlin, not mature.
Earlier in the show, she made two guest appearances, in two different spangled dresses — first with the artless emo mooks Boys Like Girls, on “Two Is Better Than One,” and later, during a splendid “Half of My Heart,” the only moment of Mr. Mayer’s set noted by audience members under 30.
Ms. Swift was one of pop’s through-lines this year. Another one at Jingle Ball was the moving-target pop sensibility that’s lately landed on electro hybrids.
There was electro-rap, from Ke$ha, whose “TiK ToK” is No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100; electro-indie-rock by Owl City, whose Postal Service-pilfering “Fireflies” is No. 5, on its way down from the top; and electro-R&B by the Lil Wayne-affiliated British import Jay Sean, who had one of the night’s most entertaining sets.
Rock barely registered here — in addition to Boys Like Girls, there was the Fray, the soul-less soft-rock troupe, which demonstrated how little noise six musicians could make — and there was a minimum of hip-hop: Ke$ha, nominally, and the palatable Pitbull, who earned a deafening response early on, before fatigue (and the Fray) had set in.
Also, there was Kanye West’s “Heartless,” sung ably, it should be said, by Kris Allen, the current “American Idol” champion, who was nevertheless received indifferently, like a substitute teacher, by the Bieber demographic. It was a reminder of the limitations of the “American Idol” machine, also evinced by the hollow response to Jordin Sparks, the 2007 winner, who had an energetic set that went largely uncheered until Mr. Bieber joined her to sing the Chris Brown parts of the love duet “No Air.”
Even after she unstrapped her heels and tossed them aside, Ms. Sparks still had four inches on him, to say nothing of octaves in vocal range. The effect was that of a mother singing to her child, not two lovers desperate to hold on to each other. Ms. Sparks is no vixen, nor is she much of an adult, but she made Mr. Bieber seem small.
Wait! Wasn’t the International rock god there last night? What a snub! He isn’t even mentioned.
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