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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Review: Liam Payne, Camila Cabello, Nick Jonas can’t save Tampa’s Jingle Ball from growing pains

Call it a growing year.

Sure, the 93.3-FLZ Jingle Ball brought a few thrills; anything constructed with so many screaming teens in mind always does. All the twinkling wristbands and necklaces passed out among the nearly 10,000 fans at Amalie Arena gave the place a winter-wonderland feel.

But in its eighth year – and I've been to all of them – Tampa's Jingle Ball has never felt more rote and predictable. There were zero slam-dunk A-listers, surprise collaborations, stray excursions into the audience or even a backstage red carpet at which a singer might slip up and actually say something fun.

Even the lineup felt like a work in progress. It was unusually heavy on boy- and girl-banders (Liam Payne, Nick Jonas, Camila Cabello) making a run at a solo career, to varying degrees of success. And it didn't help that most of the acts had played at least one Tampa Jingle Ball before – it was Cabello's fourth appearance in eight years, and the third for both Jonas and headliner Zedd.

Cabello aside, it also felt awfully white, and apart from her and Sabrina Carpenter, awfully male – hardly an accurate representation of the state of pop music in 2017. (And, yes, that was an issue specific to this city – every other stop on iHeartMedia's Jingle Ball tour had more female artists than this one.)

Did any of that matter to the Jingle Ball's core screaming demo? Nah, probably not. The Jingle Ball is about the moment, about being in such close proximity to so many pop stars at once. If you logged onto Instagram Stories on Saturday, you might've spotted Payne signing autographs outside Amalie Arena, pop-punks All Time Low sipping drinks by Tampa's waterfront and Jonas buying coffee for customers at a Starbucks on Kennedy. The social media action alone was almost as fun as the show.

For all the nits you could pick about the Jingle Ball, you didn't have to look far to see both fans and artists having fun. The charismatic Payne, especially, was quite a catch for the Jingle Ball, becoming the first One Directioner to book a solo show in town.

"I've been coming to Tampa since I was about 2," Payne said, prompting so many questions he sadly did not answer. "It's one of my favorite places in the world. I love this place."

Maybe he meant it – his way-too-short set was as slick as they come, featuring him slinking and prowling across the stage with a cadre of dancers behind him. His fluttery falsetto bounced and scooted all over Get Low, Strip That Down and Bedroom Floor, raising hope he might come back for a full show in 2018.

"They shouldn't give me a microphone," he said. "I have way too much fun."

Jonas and Cabello brought hefty backing bands to flesh out their soulful, funky sets. Both were brief and by-the-book, although Cabello deserves a little extra credit for dropping a few bars of Kendrick Lamar's Humble. and flicking on a Prince-worthy falsetto for new track Never Be the Same.

Oddly, all those poster-worthy dreamboats served as warm-up acts for Zedd and Charlie Puth, two songwriter-producers whose studio talents have put them in high demand among pop's, well, poster-worthy dreamboats. Zedd, in particular, still has a golden touch on his riser, with the ability to mix in more pop hits than just about any other DJ this decade. He could have filled his half-hour set with his own gargantuan singles — Stay the Night with Hayley Williams, I Want You To Know with Selena Gomez, Break Free with Ariana Grande , Clarity with Foxes, Stay with Alessia Cara – but he didn't stop there, also bringing the audience to screams with Lamar's Humble., Icona Pop's I Love It and Magic!'s Rude. Never mind none of those acts were in the building; at the Jingle Ball, you do whatever it takes for a squeal.

As for the youngsters? Why Don't We's five-man weave to open the night was pleasant and professional enough, including a cutesy cover of Lil Pump's Gucci Gang; buy stock in 'em now before you can't afford it. Actress-singer-social media sensation Carpenter showed she really might make a run at becoming pop's next big thing, with a five-piece band beefing up her infectious singles On Purpose and Why and adding depth to a gospelly, sing-along Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

If 2017 is any indication, we'll probably see Carpenter and Why Don't We back at another Jingle Ball in the future. Heck, we may yet again hear Jonas dropping Jealous, Cabello singing Havana or Zedd spraying the venue with smoke, streamers and confetti on Clarity.

But let's hope some new blood enters the mix soon. This may have been a tweener year, but the Jingle Ball can't linger in adolescence forever. Come 2018, it needs to grow up.

— Jay Cridlin

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