Pink turns somersaults suspended high above the crowd. The boys in One Direction cause multiple teenage meltdowns. Bruno Mars exudes greeting-card sentiment and clothing-catalog smiles.
As usual, Capital FM’s annual Jingle Bell Ball at London’s O2 over the weekend brought together some of the world’s biggest pop stars for a two-day celebration.
There’s been some vibrant pop in 2012. Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” was an immaculately catchy flirt. Taylor Swift’s album “Red” managed to be credible and commercial. From South Korea, we got the globe-gobbling monster of PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”
PSY isn’t in attendance at the O2. His hit is shoe-horned into the show via a skit involving dancers dressed as reindeer. Jepson’s song is covered by British boy band Lawson, who follow it with a disembowelment of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.”
Taylor Swift remains backstage, her glories unsung. She’s supporting her boyfriend Harry Styles, a singer with One Direction.
His band comes onstage to a wall of noise more extreme than Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.” Sadly this isn’t the music, just the sound of 20,000 teenage girls undergoing collective emotional overload.
The five lads, the oldest of whom is only 20, gambol around in casual clothes, not a dance routine in sight. They rely on strong singing and impeccable cuteness.
The lyrics are carefully Jane Austen: plenty of romance; sex implied, discretely out of sight.
“What Makes You Beautiful” is a work of understated excellence, from the melody to the inclusive lyrics (“You don’t know you’re beautiful/ That’s what makes you beautiful”).
By contrast, Bruno Mars’s “Just The Way You Are” reeks of insincerity. A cover of Amy Winehouse’s cover of the Zutons’ “Valerie” has the soulful presence of a traffic bollard.
JLS’s dance beats sound like an updated N-Sync. The Wanted’s performance reinforces all the prejudices against boy bands: inert eye candy singing aural slop.
Cheryl Cole’s set is one dimensional, even with a guest appearance by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas for the dark electro-disco of “3 Words.” She’s far better when reunited with Girls Aloud, the band with whom she originally found success.
Even so, the vocals are uneven, the group dynamic stilted. Work will be needed for the U.K. greatest-hits tour that starts in February 2013.
There are no such problems from Pink. Stripped of all the onstage props and paraphernalia of her Funhouse tour, she’s a revelation.
She starts by belting out “Raise Your Glass” while wading through the middle of the crowd, hugging fans and posing for photographs. Her band punches out ballsy rock pop with the swagger of Motley Crue and the discipline of James Brown.
Pink is dressed in knee high boots and a black leather jacket, her hair in a blond rocker’s quaff. She hollers feisty hits like “Try” and “Just Like A Pill” with a voice that could propel a jumbo jet.
For the finale she straps herself into a harness and performs “So What” flying and tumbling the length of the arena.
Pink’s “The Truth About Love” tour starts in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 13, 2013. In the 2013 world of pop, it will be a must-see.
Rating: **** for Pink, ** for the rest.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.
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