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Pop music review: KIIS-FM’s dance-heavy Jingle Ball

December 4, 2011 |  8:07 pm

This year, the top 40 station put a satin bow on the Europhile club sound, giving dance music fans a shot at raving to the beats of Guetta, Lady Gaga, Taio Cruz and Flo Rida.

In a back row of the Nokia Theatre on Saturday night, a boy of about 6 in a dark purple hoodie took in David Guetta’s No. 1 pop single "Without You" and absolutely raved his face off. The kid knew every move in a glowsticker’s handbook, waving his palms at the yearning build-ups and fist pumping at the Ibiza bliss-outs. He sang every word to the song, and shrieked Guetta’s name when it was done.

Let’s recap how important this is. Dance music’s conquest of American pop is so complete that a child in elementary school can be a Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan-style fan of a French electronic producer who does not sing live and whose performance is visually incomprehensible to most of his audience. And he was far, far from alone at Nokia.

This year’s KIIS-FM Jingle Ball, perhaps the most reliable round-table of what top 40 is valuing these days, put a satin bow on the Europhile club sound and made it the one present radio fans might be getting in perpetuity. The lineup included four-on-the-floor adherents such as Guetta, pop’s weirdo mother superior Lady Gaga, plus Taio Cruz and Flo Rida. With dance music this pervasive, maybe the DJ software company Serato Audio Research needs to come out with a kids’ version.

PHOTOS: The 2011 KIIS Jingle Ball

One problem was obvious from the beginning -- the show started at 6:45 p.m. If you wanted to catch Nickelodeon’s experiment in boy-band media synergy, Big Time Rush, and the end of Gaga’s set, you were in your chair for 4 1/2 hours. That kind of stage commitment would wear out Springsteen, plus KIIS devoted way too much time to inane DJ yakking with cable-TV celebrities.

But the sets themselves bowed at the monolith of dance beats and club iconography. Cruz’s "Dynamite" and "Break Your Heart" are seltzer confections of total drive-time inconsequence that don’t suffer from his lack of star power. The Jamaican dance hall-pop crossover Sean Paul, one of two artists who didn’t abide by the day’s rave-y code, got enthusiastic receptions for patois-heavy hits such as "Temperature." But they were obliterated by heavy subbass that left the crowd flinching and struggling to make out what particular song was playing under all the air-horn noises.

The indefatigable Flo Rida pulled his well-honed strip-poker shtick -- he removes a shirt for every two or so chart hits he sings, which means that 15 minutes into his set, he’s a walking pectoral muscle. The ladies did not object, though it never gets normal to see pre-tweens invited onstage to "Get Low" during a song about ogling strippers.

The resuscitated rap-funk group Gym Class Heroes benefited from being a tangible live act (in the old-fashioned guitar-drums way). Singer Travie McCoy is a thousand-watt frontman with charisma bigger than his band’s dorm-friendly output. the group’s new single, "Stereo Hearts," takes a thin metaphor (hearts beat, as do radios) and drags it out to every conceivable lover-bro cliché.

Guetta’s ravenous audience was revealing about this moment in mainstream music. Even his nods to orthodox European club moves (including debuting a jet-fuel club remix of "Turn Me On," his track with Nicki Minaj), met with pop-star adulation. His success probably makes old rave heads sigh and reach for their methadone, but a rising Guetta tide seems to be lifting all producers’ boats.

Gaga, however, is a student of pop radio with a classicist’s devotion. "It’s my mission to push Top 40 as far as it will go," she said, even if that descriptor is today more of a genre than a relevant chart metric. For all her avant-couture and claws-out dance moves, Gaga is fundamentally a fan of an old idea of radio, where classic rock power ballads such as "Hair" have a cross-dial armistice with the enjoyable synth-snarl of "Bad Romance" and the acid-washed "Edge of Glory," which is essentially just a Bob Seger dad-rock tune set to a disco beat.

As the last port in a storm for the major-label business model, pop radio’s going all-in on clubland. As our little raver-in-training proved, blatant dance-bait is rarely a losing bet.


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 -- August Brown

Photos: At the Jingle Ball, David Guetta (top) spurs on the crowd, and Flo Rida (bottom) still has his shirt on as he performs. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times