iHeart Radio Music Festival Is A Vegas Vacation Like No Other

Highlights from the 2016 iHeart Radio Fest, featuring Britney and Backstreet, U2 and Sting, Chainsmokers and Zedd.

Written by Annie Lesser • Photography by Annie Lesser • September 26, 2016

The amazing thing about Vegas is that it's a city built on illusion. The buildings and gardens and monuments are about as "real" as the tricks Criss Angel performs at the Luxor, yet we buy into it for the pure joy of the experience. So you roam the streets of New York via roller coaster, ogle the lights of the Eiffel Tower, and dance the night away inside a Roman palace. And if you were in Vegas this past weekend, you take in the iHeartRadio Festival, a live music event that isn't actually a festival, but one worth pretending is. Real or not, iHeart is an experience, and one jam-packed with more Snapchat-worthy moments than any other festival out there.

The iHeart Radio Festival consists of three parts: Two nights of arena performances and a daytime outdoor concert sandwiched between the two. Both arena shows featured acts that could easily headline arenas on their own, while the daytime village hosts a steady stream of current chart climbers and recent platinum album recipients. The arena shows were hosted by Ryan Seacrest and featured celebrity presenters, while iHeartRadio DJs held down the daytime shift. A few acts overlapped—namely Sam Hunt, Cage the Elephant, and Latin pop group Los 5—but for the most part the lineups were kept separate.

After Los 5 played the first night we were graced by a short and sweet set from Billy Idol, who proved, like he has time and time again, that he is still a bonafide rockstar. He closed the night out with "Rebel Yell" with Miley Cyrus. The two strutted and belted, their voices complimenting each other as much their platform black boots did. Cyrus was obviously as excited about the duet as the crowd was to see her; she sported sunglasses bearing Idol's name, as well as a Billy Idol t-shirt, leather pants bedazzled with "I <3 Billy Idol," and a leather jacket with Idol's face painted on the back.

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Welcome to iHeart Radio Fest after dark.

Sam Hunt brought the first fireworks show of the night, and thus ushered in an onslaught of pyrotechnics. Later on in the night, Drake appeared minus the visually stunning stage set that he's been touting on his Summer Sixteen Tour. Still, the setlist was impressively packed with hits.

Earlier in the evening SIA, in preparation for her Nostalgic for the Present Tour, premiered some new choreography with her dancers based on the recently released music video for "The Greatest." Twenty One Pilots delivered a similarly show-stopping set, as Tyler Joseph climbed a pillar in the middle of the audience. But the night's high honor went to OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, who was earnest and vibrant as he hit the high notes and bounded into the crowd.

The strangest moment of the evening went down when Sean Penn took the stage to mutter a confusing speech before introducing U2 as the greatest rock band in the world. The Irish icons closed out Saturday with a political message describing how the crowd should gamble with their money and not their country. Then they dropped a haul of "Make America Hate Again" Donald Trump bills from the rafters. They also played clips from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, and encouraged the audience to look at the world without hate.

The daytime village portion of iHeart Radio Fest kicked off bright and early at 10 a.m. on Saturday, making quick work of openers Los 5, Lissie, and Troye Sivan. Fourth up on the lineup was actress-turned-pop star Hailee Steinfeld, who played her first-ever show on the iHeart daytime stage last year. This time around, the 19-year-old "Love Myself" singer busted out some amazing choreography and impressive vocal leaps.

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Hailee Steinfeld slaying the iHeart Radio Festival's daytime stage.

Throughout the afternoon, rock and R&B reigned supreme. Cage the Elephant were expectedly amped up and down to crowd surf; Jeremih showed off his sexy moves brought out birthday girl Alexa to serenade her with "Birthday Song"; Tinashe slayed on both singing and choreography fronts; and the Chainsmokers brought the crowd to near ecstatic levels, remarking at one point that they couldn't believe they were playing after Good Charlotte, whose "Downtown Boulder" helped inspire their own songs.

The afternoon got wild when DNCE hit the stage. The Joe Jonas-fronted party rockers went all-in, jumping, screaming, dancing, and lifting each other as they charged through songs off their self-titled debut. While she might not have the showy moves of her predecessors, Alessia Cara boasted the biggest vocals of the day, while hometown heros Panic! at The Disco closed out the show as the sun set.

Night two of iHeart was all about the surprise guests. Right off the bat, Britney Spears brought out G-Eazy, who rapped as she danced her way through their new duet "Make Me." If you weren't already feeling nostalgic for the late '90s, Florida Georgia Line was joined by Backstreet Boys for a country reworking of their 1997 hit "Backstreet's Back." The beloved boy band then surprised everyone by announcing their upcoming Vegas residency.

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Cage the Elephant playing their first of two iHeart sets.

Cage the Elephant's arena didn't contain the crowdsurfing feats of their daytime gig, but frontman Matt Shultz made up for it by running through the seated arena, collapsing in one row after another as he went. Pitbull began his set with a speech about overcoming obstacles and how he managed to achieve his American Dream. Later on in the set, he hit the mic about to shine a light on the issues surrounding anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments.

If the Chainsmokers were the kings of iHeart's daytime village ball, Zedd ruled the night. Before his set, he took the stage to play drums on Ariana Grande's "Break Free." During his own show, he was joined by Nasir from MAGIC! for "Rude" and then Aloe Blacc on "Candyman." Zedd closed things out behind the keys with Hailee Steinfeld, who joined him to sing "Starving."

Still, Usher proved to be the biggest surprise of the night. His set brought slick dance moves, as well as appearances by Kida the Great, Lil DeeDee, Lil Jon, and Ludacris, who gave some seriously great performances of Lil Jon's "Lovers and Friends" and Usher's "Yeah!"

And in case you thought it all could stop there, Sting also performed, and gave fans a setlist weighted by Police classics. Real festival or not, iHeart 2016 was about as star-studded and action-packed as it gets.