The Jonas Brothers covering Frank Ocean — now there’s a Rorschach test for how you feel about pop music today.
On the one hand, when the once-omnipotent teen-pop trio played Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You” during its set at KIIS-FM’s annual Jingle Ball at the Nokia Theatre on Saturday, it might have signalled that even Disney sitcom bands can grow into adventurous good taste.
Even if their seducer’s falettos lacked Ocean’s gravitas, hey, at least the arc of music bends toward the good stuff, and they might take a lot of post-tweens with them. On the other, the JoBros’ cover had a scent of rot to it. Was it a pander from three already-over-the-hill 20-somethings cynically lashing themselves to 2012’s most exciting new R&B star, an African American genius who has had a gay relationship, who doesn’t need the lift and whose life story is as far removed from TV-network pop as is imaginable? What dark arts do the JoBros wield, to turn one of the year’s sexiest songs into a tag-teamed creep show? Whatever side you lean toward probably determines your feelings about Saturday’s Jingle Ball, which also featured megastars such as Taylor Swift, Ne-Yo, Ellie Goulding and OneRepublic. Almost all the stars tried to grow aesthetically while playing catch-up to the woolly world of internet-driven sounds and styles. Sometimes to excellent ends, but catch-up nonetheless. With Jingle Ball’s typical efficiency (except for the cringey moment where a “Dancing With the Stars” guest accidentally gave away the night’s secret DJ, will.i.am), the acts tried to secure mega-hits while also responding to the Web’s ephemeral churn of styles.
OneRepublic, the yearning rock act fronted by pop-hit factory foreman Ryan Tedder (who has written and produced for Beyonce, Leona Lewis and Kelly Clarkson), remained a curious beast of a band, with carefully arranged rock tunes such as “Secrets” and “Stop and Stare.” OneRepublic is a star, but not a huge one, and one suspects this is a passion project for Tedder (though a new and unreleased dance-inclined single felt like it had sea legs).
Goulding’s set was the night’s gold standard for a breakout artist obeying all the old and new rules of pop while staying herself. The English singer started in bedroom electronica, but just as dance music caught on in American pop, she atypically migrated toward singer-songwriter material. She’s since come back around after scoring a hit with the house-infused “Lights” (and after briefly dating dubstep titan Skrillex), and her Jingle Ball set was full of singles such as “Anything Can Happen” that paired teenage optimism with sonic savvy.
The Jonas Brothers have a hard field to till as they grow older. They’re clearly moving on from their bedroom-pinup days, but their fraternal band dynamic still treats them like a gimmick. The youngest Jonas, Nick, should take command of the group — he’s its best writer, and in the right outside hands a new song such as “Wedding Bells” could evoke some earned pain. Not yet, though — and covering Ocean is a tawdry shortcut there. If there were a just god helming popular music, every Chris Brown record sale since 2009 would have gone to Ne-Yo instead. He’s every bit as fleet a dancer and singer, a skillful songwriter-producer and by all accounts a stand-up dude. But he hasn’t quite mastered the Prince-ly art of making devotion seem dirty yet.
As EDM-R&B goes, “Let Me Love You” acknowledges some tougher emotions (the title lyric turns on the followup line “...until you learn to love yourself”). But we want classy, supportive partners in real life -- maybe something a little needier and racier onstage. Who’d have thought that Swift would be the one to deliver on that? It’s been noted that with her venom-seeping, megawatt-produced album “Red,” she’s pretty much become the Evil Taylor from her video for “You Belong With Me.” What’s unexpected is how good a look all this is for her — the first artist to start in banjo-flecked country and grow to make sense of brooding dubstep (“I Knew You Were Trouble”) and bemused cheerleader pop (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” whose titantic Max Martin chorus is worth every penny they paid for it). Even her famous Taylor Face — the faux-astonishment that anyone came out to see the country’s biggest pop star in concert — has gone meta. At Jingle Ball, she wore it as a sceptical sneer, one likely aimed at her myriad exes (woe to be Conor Kennedy on the receiving end of her next album) and her own stereotypes. Hopefully, Jingle Ball’s undercard took notes — that’s how you grow up onstage.