It’s a weird year for anyone to get a handle on “pop music,” what with the fragmentation of listening habits leading to a few artists dominating this year’s charts. But iHeart, the multimedia behemoth, is still soldiering on with the Jingle Ball, its annual attempt to sum up the year in pop — or at least its program director’s vision of such — through multi-act bills in its major radio markets.
Tuesday night’s briskly paced, sponsor-studded show at TD Garden, which featured eight acts of varying fame, was appropriately uneven, its low points being nearly balanced by its best moments and its ending showing how the next wave of pop might just involve fanbases clustering off into their own sects, ready to throw down on Twitter in service of their faves.
First, the low points. Nantucket-born Meghan Trainor rode the retro-minded annoyance “All About That Bass” to body-positive-ish fame in 2014. She’s spent the ensuing years slowly updating her sonic touchpoints, but her lyrics remain stubbornly regressive. Her set proved incredibly grating, its potential-drained songs accompanied by parade-float waving, halfhearted dancing, and by-the-numbers banter. The Chainsmokers, the duo whose mopily loathsome Halsey collaboration “Closer” was inescapable in 2016, trotted out their wan version of pop-EDM, adding a drummer to their stage setup and bringing out show-closing K-pop act Monsta X to amp up the crowd on “Something Just Like This,” which features Chris Martin of Coldplay in its recorded form. (Absent collaborators hovered over every set like ghosts — especially now, executives still have little faith in the drawing power of their moneymakers.) And G-Eazy, whose toxic masculinity somehow outdid that of the Chainsmokers — no mean feat — put on a hoary, if brief performance that did little more than show how white rappers just might have it a bit easier on pop radio, even in 2018.
Bazzi opened the show with bro-ish energy, but that was outweighed by his charm and his surprisingly boy-band-ready voice, as well as the fact that his breakout single, the simmering “Mine,” at least indicates affection toward the woman he’s serenading. Shawn Mendes — a Jingle Ball vet at 20 — was the night’s clear winner applause-o-meter wise, and he ran through his biggest hits, many of which pivot off syncopation to increase their jittery vibes, with aplomb and gratitude. (“I could play for five hours,” he said before the show-closing anxiety anthem “In My Blood.” The Chainsmokers and G-Eazy followed him on the bill, so his sentiments were easily shared.) Camila Cabello, whose smoky “Havana” is the year’s catchiest No. 1, was similarly endearing, joking about rogue saliva after a coughing fit interrupted her lead-in to the ballad “Consequences” and getting down with her dancers during her chart-topping hit’s raucous close. Khalid, whose buttery baritone has made him a go-to hook provider for DJs and whose diaristic lyrics helped his 2017 debut, “American Teen,” become a cult favorite among teens and post-teens, was charming even in the face of technical problems, his assured voice and relatable poetry delighting the crowd.
By the time Monsta X, the seven-member closing act, hit the stage, at least half the crowd was either in the process of leaving or had left. (Kiss 108 doesn’t seem to have added their debut English-language single, “Shoot Out,” to its regular rotation yet.) But those who remained, some of whom count themselves as part of the “Monbebe” sect, were fervent, their screams filling the arena as the septet powered through their set.
Musically, Monsta X are updating the harmony-heavy boy-band template laid down by Maurice Starr’s New Edition 30 years ago with decidedly late-’10s touches — fiery, percussive raps, seat-rattling bass, processed-to-next-year guitars that recall a cross between Korn and a midflight 737. Their performance was sweetly energetic (points for not letting the dwindling crowd dull their energy), but puzzling out why iHeart invited them onto the Jingle Ball circuit — Trend-hopping? A realization that in 2018, fans’ passion may be as important as sales and streams? An exec’s genuine admiration for their music? — resulted in them being the night’s most fascinating act.
Kiss 108 Jingle Ball 2018
With Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Khalid, the Chainsmokers, G-Eazy, Meghan Trainor, Bazzi, and Monsta X
At TD Garden, Dec. 4Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.