LAS VEGAS — Poor Zedd.
When the German EDM whiz was booked to play the second night of this year's iHeartRadio Music Festival, he probably figured he'd burn the house down with "Clarity," the million-selling single that's found serious traction this year on pop radio (and helped him score a producing gig on Lady Gaga's upcoming album).
But that was probably before he found out who else was due to perform Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and in what order: Sandwiched between Paul McCartney and Maroon 5 on a bill that also included Justin Timberlake, Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus, Miguel, Phoenix and Kesha (the last of whom jammed with Joan Jett on "Bad Reputation"), Zedd barely made an impact as he pushed buttons and twisted dials in front of an audience hungry for more conventional star power.
The crowd got plenty of that, beginning with McCartney, who wore his legendary status as lightly as usual in a set that mixed oldies with tunes from an album he's set to release in October, and ending with Timberlake, who similarly premiered songs from "The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2," due next week.
And yet for all its old-fashioned razzle-dazzle — cue the pyrotechnics and squealing guitar solos — Saturday's show actually felt far fresher and more up-to-the-minute than Friday's, which featured Katy Perry, Elton John, Chris Brown and Queen with Adam Lambert, among others.
Maybe Zedd just needed some explosions.
Taking the stage after midnight (and after a very strong set by Drake), Timberlake immediately launched into a growling rendition of "SexyBack," then played "True Blood," a dark, clattering new track that sounded like his response to Michael Jackson's "Thriller." He also did "TKO," which he released online Thursday night — "You already know the words," he said, pointing to one fan near the front — and the swinging "Only When I Walk Away."
But Timberlake seemed to have the most fun tweaking his familiar hits, as when he dropped a bit of Juicy J's "Bandz a Make Her Dance" into "Cry Me a River" or had one of the drummers in his 15-piece band add some choice conga beats to "My Love." Even "Take Back the Night," the rather ho-hum lead single from the upcoming disc, sounded lively.
On MTV's Video Music Awards last month, Timberlake's centerpiece performance dragged in a way that suggested his arena tour this fall — one he'll preview Tuesday night with a free outdoor gig on Hollywood Boulevard — might be a chore. That no longer seems to be a worry.
McCartney is scheduled to hit Hollywood Boulevard too (on Monday), and if his iHeartRadio set was any indication, he'll be in a hard-rocking mood: Saturday he blasted through "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Let Me Roll It," as well as a new song, "Save Us," that carried traces of Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age.
He also did the upcoming album's bouncy title track — they're both called "New" — and the jangly "Everybody Out There" before setting off "Live and Let Die" with more fireworks than I've ever seen at an indoor concert. Smoke still filled the air when Zedd went on, which didn't help the beleaguered DJ.
Jared Leto's Thirty Seconds to Mars opted for even more visual spectacle: Its set started with Leto singing Rihanna's "Stay" while wearing a heavy fur cape and featured a large group of ski-masked drummers and giant balloons dropping from the ceiling. The band's music was a bloated version of already-bloated U2, but there was something admirable about the scale of its bombast, even if Leto nearly killed it by asking, "You guys don't mind if a rock band plays a song, do you?"
His point, which he then belabored in a way McCartney (or Maroon 5) never would: "We're not a pop band."
Bruno Mars, that dependable synthesizer of styles and attitudes, made no such protestations as he and his crew delivered a miniature version of the show they brought to Staples Center in July. Rock, pop, disco, R&B — Mars did it all, and made it look effortless, never more so than when he drove "Gorilla" to a hammering psych-soul freak-out, then dropped back for a delicate piano-and-voice coda. Rest easy, football fans: Next year's Super Bowl halftime show is in good hands.
Unless NFL organizers can get Miley Cyrus, that is.
Apparently booked at the last minute to capitalize on her still-fruitful VMA controversy, Cyrus played twice Saturday, first during the afternoon in the outdoor space on Las Vegas Boulevard known as the iHeartRadio Village, then at night on the MGM Grand main stage, where she was introduced by Britney Spears. Both performances were among the weekend's most powerful.
What's unsettling — and therefore thrilling — about what we might as well call the Matter of Miley is that so far it hasn't been clear to what extent she's in control of her narrative, the procession from Disney Channel sweetheart to twerk-master extraordinaire. After her VMA performance, many hands were wrung over the idea that Cyrus was merely being used by a sinister cabal of show-business vultures.
And that may turn out to be true. But Saturday it certainly didn't seem so as she sang her summer hit "We Can't Stop" with a force and clarity that suggested every word — and every choice — was hers, even (or especially) the dubious decision to hire a little person to wear a pair of denim cutoffs and serve as the latest of Cyrus' onstage spanking objects. One key line from the song: "Remember only God can judge us."
As strong as "We Can't Stop" was — at the iHeart Village she followed it with a rap-rock version of her old hit "Party in the U.S.A." — Cyrus was even better in "Wrecking Ball," the demolishing power ballad that just went to No. 1 on the Hot 100 thanks in large part to a music video in which she appears nude.
Saturday night she was (mostly) dressed but sang with a naked intensity that cut through all the speculation about her mental state, chatter she addressed directly in a left-field cover of a relatively obscure song from the early '70s by the folk singer Melanie.
"Look what they've done to my brain, Ma," Cyrus sang, her eyes projecting a steeliness nothing like the frenzied look we've grown accustomed to, "They picked it like a chicken bone, and they think I'm half-insane." As she delivered the words, fans at the MGM Grand drew restless, waiting impatiently for the next provocation. But Cyrus was already giving it to them.