We live in times of great portent, with nary a day going by without some grand declaration that a recent discovery, change, or disruption will soon mean the End of Life As We Know It. For popular music and its attendant culture, the last decade and change has been remarkable mainly for the endless handwringing about the endtimes faced by the music industry. You are no doubt familiar: that nobody buys albums, that no one can afford tours, that the charts are filled with empty poseurs — in short, that nobody cares about music because the world is ending and everything sucks. Do yourself a favor, though, and take my word on it: it is all complete and utter nonsense. Not only has popular music arisen in modern times to become a protean partner in our daily lives, but the superstars that peddle the songs of today, whether they are the biggest supergiant or just promising minor leaguers, are part of a juggernaut industry creating a product that is more powerful and more irresistible than at any time in the history of the Musical-Industrial Complex.
Last night’s sold-out Jingle Ball blowout at TD Garden, an annual event sponsored by KISS 108, was an embarrassment of riches and an almost literally mind-melting smorgasbord of some of today’s top musical talents. On paper, the roster was diverse: from the Aussie power-pop of 5 Seconds of Summer to the chilly Scandinavian dance-thrum of Tove Lo, or from the chart-topping soul-drama of The Weeknd to the scorched-earth vocal domination of Demi Lovato, it would seem that not a lot of repeat sound was in store for the audience. And yet it was impossible to escape the conclusion that, although there was a wide spectrum of stylistic choices, the overall tenor of the evening never really strayed from being absolutely crushing.
And I mean that in the best possible way — take for example show opener 5 Seconds of Summer, a quartet of 19-to-21 year olds who can manage to create an air of absolute bloody hysteria in a massive arena with just a handful of taut-yet-anthemic power-pop nuggets. Their tunes seem crafted somehow for stadiums, with each thud and crunch reverberating into the rafters and disappearing into the screeching roar of the crowd. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether this music is sold by the thousands or millions as a physical product anymore — modern popular music is created with the sole purpose of building hype and familiarity to the point where an enormous crowd can become one in rapture to music made for true mass appeal.
It’s clear with the decline of traditional recorded music money streams that the show’s the thing now: stadium tours and, especially, festival circuits where audiences are used to seeing acts in cavalcade settings, with each act having to constantly be on the top of their game, both with their performance and with their material. Thus someone like Canadian producer Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, can in a short time go from an anonymous Youtube mixtape creator to one of the top music superstars in the world — if there are a handful of absolutely explosive and dramatic tunes, and if the star can deliver the goods live and melt people’s minds, it can all happen. Last night, Tesfaye showed that the hype is justified, as he powered through his biggest hits with a voice that alternated between the sweetest falsetto heard on pop radio since Michael Jackson and a dark loverman growl that is both devious and intense. During his set-closing powerhouse “The Hills”, the absolutely deafening response to the song’s buzzing and chilling shriek proved that Tesfaye didn’t need the 20-foot pyro flames blasting from the stage to show that he was on fucking fire.
Truth be told, though, The Weeknd was practically coasting compared to Demi Lovato, who bounded on stage about an hour later and absolutely decimated the Garden. Lovato has always been a reliably great power-pop purveyor whose catchy high energy output from the last half decade has made her easily one of the more impressive Disney graduates — but this fall’s Confident saw her step up her game big time, power-wise, with a hard re-tooled sound that is both soulful and nail-tough. Opening with the album’s title track, she hot-stepped like a possessed woman while hitting notes that would have shattered champagne flutes in the nosebleeds. Twenty minutes later, closing with her recent smash “Cool For The Summer”, she practically leapt out of her frame as she belted the song’s pleading exhortation: “Take me down into your paradise/Don’t be scared ‘cause I’m your body type.”
One really cannot overstate the sheer manic frenzy that gripped the capacity crowd at last night’s event, as every act of the night’s every move was greeted with apoplectic screams. A change, however, overtook the crowd as noted Scottish DJ/producer/songwriter Calvin Harris stepped up to his massive lighted podium, a hushed realization of imminent blitzkrieg that temporarily quelled the roar; then, the sirens hit of “Under Control”, from last year’s Motion album, and all hell broke loose. Once Harris dropped the beat and the light show set off amidst a fusillade of stage explosions, it was absolute dance-club pandemonium in the Garden for the next half-hour, as a zillion fingers touched the sky and laser lights pierced the fog while a barrage of numbing tribal whumps hit our collective cochleae like a Sherman tank battalion.
Harris’s expert dolloping of euphoria and bombardment fit in with the general theme for the evening, which was something along the lines of hitting the audience over the head with so much performance intensity that the commercial shuck and jive of a corporate radio event sponsored by a credit card company was barely noticeable; although as 5 Seconds of Summer sang in the chorus of their sounds-so-much-like-”Hungry-Like-The-Wolf”-that-they-actually-willingly-gave-Duran-Duran-writing-credits summer hit “Hey Everybody”, “Live it up today/We can all get some and we can all get paid.”
Hear hear, I suppose; as the last wail of Harris’s set rang in our collective grey matter, an endless high pitched buzz bouncing through our craniums as we spilled out onto Causeway Street, it was clear that popular music had managed to fight to live another year through sheer brute force and the indomitable will of its representative artists. May it live to damage our hearing forevermore!
All photos by Matthew Shelter for Vanyaland. Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.