The Jingle Ball decade in Tampa has ended the way it began: not quite with a whimper, but not exactly a bang, either.
Ten years after Top 40 station 93.3-FLZ staged its first, tentative Jingle Ball concert at Amalie Arena, the 2010s ended with Tampa hosting the first stop on what’s now a dozen-city tour organized by radio overlords iHeartMedia. The fest has had its ups and downs, lineups stacked and lean; poll stans of any particular pop star and they’ll tell you which years ruled and which didn’t.
Sunday’s Jingle Ball had its moments, mostly courtesy of rousing headliners Sam Smith and Lizzo — but it also suffered from a pair of late lineup scratches this week, when rapper French Montana canceled due to illness and boy band Why Don’t We got stuck on a plane in New Zealand. Losing a multiplatinum rapper and squeal-inducing boy band didn’t just create a palpable vacuum of energy among the nearly 10,000 fans in the building. It meant Tampa had its tiniest Jingle Ball lineup since 2010 ― a year that featured future Super Bowl halftime headliners Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars, among others.
You can’t blame 93.3-FLZ for the loss of Montana and Why Don’t We, though. And credit where it’s due: They realized you can’t tell the story of pop music in 2019 without talking about Lizzo.
A mere three months after her stellar, sold-out concert at the Yuengling Center, the newly minted eight-time Grammy nominee rescued what had until then been a somewhat disjointed affair, preaching her gospel of self-love and body positivity to an audience primed to hear it.
“Jingle Ball, are you ready to ho, ho, ho?” she said, decked in a bodysuit besparkled with a red sequin bow. “Close your eyes and say, ‘I love you, me!’ Now open your eyes and say, ‘I love you, Lizzo!’"
Lizzo — who’s up for Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist at next year’s Grammys — wailed and faith-healed through empowering singles like Good as Hell, Tempo and Jerome, raising all kinds of hell with her holy-woman spirit. Although she did not perform Juice — a barely forgivable sin — she got the crowd harmonizing “like a bunch of Beyonces” by the time she closed with Truth Hurts.
“Are my big girls in the building?” she asked the crowd. And when the crowd’s response didn’t hit the bass notes she was looking for, she reminded them: “Boys can be big girls, too.”
One might be tempted to say Lizzo stole the show, but it’s tough to do that when Sam Smith closed it out. The Oscar- and Grammy-winning singer has had a relatively light 2019, performing only a handful of concerts and arguably garnering more headlines for deciding to use they/them pronouns.
But if Sunday’s show was a warmup for 2020, look out. Smith still glows with carefree charm and charisma, incorporating more choreography into their act without sacrificing their voice. Swinging and thrusting like they were having a blast, Smith sent waves of joy throughout the arena on Latch and How Do You Sleep. It was way too short a set, only half a dozen songs, but even the somber Stay With Me felt pumped up with pulse-pounding pianos.
“I released this song six years ago,” Smith said before that one, “and it still means as much to me as it ever did.”
Smith also gave the Tampa crowd a treat by bringing out Normani for the first proper live performance of their hit duet Dancing With a Stranger.
Normani is no stranger to the Jingle Ball stage, having performed with Fifth Harmony in 2013 and 2016, but her solo debut felt a little off. She came on several minutes late — a telling glitch at the typically synced-to-perfection Jingle Ball — and her intense, choreography-heavy show endured a few sound problems. The dancing: outstanding. Motivation: motivating! But the overall effect: simultaneously too much and too little, like she was trying to cram a Beyonce-sized arena spectacular into a mere 20 minutes, part of which she wasn’t even on the stage. The crowd didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Preceding the lineup’s top-heavy latter half was a trio of vastly lesser-known pop dudes. First was Spencer Sutherland, playing his first arena set ever, balancing his vaguely Shawn Mendesian vibes with an old-soul energy, down to the white turtleneck and croony cover of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next. Then came the Disney-clean teen AJ Mitchell, aiming for that wholesome early-Jonas, early-Bieber bull’s-eye with a twinkle in his smile.
The most intriguing of the three was Hell’s Kitchen native Max, working his electropop energy with a confidence level fluctuating somewhere between Miguel and Entourage’s Ari Gold. He cartwheeled while dancing, flung his mic stand between his legs and seamlessly worked words like “delicious,” “amazing” and “spicy” into his banter. His hit ballad Lights Down Low drew an extended ovation from the crowd.
Time will tell whether Max resurfaces over the next decade of Jingle Balls, or whether the Jingle Ball 2024 will feature performers we’ve barely even heard of today. Pop is a ravenous medusa on a rotating stage, chomping the heads off many young artists before we can even remember their names. Remember Rixton? Karmin? Outasight? Iyaz? They played Jingle Ball, too.
Then again, so did Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes, and they turned out fine. Five years from now, Max might be headlining halftime of the Super Bowl, and this year’s Jingle Ball will look magical in the rearview.
Or we might just remember it for Lizzo, Sam Smith and nothing else. Which, in the end, wouldn’t be the worst way to close out a decade.