Sleazier than the Grammys, stuffier than the VMAs, less legitimate than either one, The American Music Awards are the unfortunate middle child of music awards shows. The only time anyone cares how many American Music Awards an artist has won is during the American Music Awards. This is the show that gave us David Hasselhoff dancing to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” in 2011 and crowned Justin Bieber the 2012 Artist of the Year. In other words, don’t expect high art.
And yet – the American Music Awards are a fun, if frustrating, thermometer for the current temperature of popular music. Last year’s show brought us Carly Rae Jepsen and PSY, but also Taylor Swift and Stevie Wonder. You have to take the good with the bad.
Whether the awards mean anything or not (they don’t), the show should provide some interesting moments. Will Justin Timberlake do something unexpected to cap off his busy year, or will he rest on his laurels? Will Miley Cyrus descend further into mayhem or restrain herself? Will Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line demonstrate why they’re country’s two hottest superstars right now, or will they continue to make us wish for Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert instead?
Follow along starting at 8pm Eastern for my reviews of each performance on the American Music Awards, airing on ABC.
Katy Perry, “Unconditionally”: This was a busy performance, but not a terribly compelling one. This song is the best on Perry’s uninspired new album PRISM, but the perfectly lovely spectacle behind Perry distracted from the performance instead of supporting. Perry’s mic was also a little low – perhaps masking her shaky vocals? An unremarkable start to the night. C+
Pitbull is spouting nonsense and using women as props. Lovely start for Mr. 305.
Justin Timberlake wins Best Pop/Rock Male Artist in a fairly competitive field. He’s really excited and very friendly with Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum. Who knew?
One Direction, “Story of My Life”: This song is an utterly shameless Mumford and Sons ripoff, and the looks on their faces are just a little too intense to be believed, but they actually sound pretty decent, especially while harmonizing on the chorus. Harry Styles needs to learn the difference between emotion and oversinging. Oh, and hair gel. C+
Ariana Grande, “The Way”: Now THAT’s singing. She’s also smart for doing this performance planted in the middle of the stage – her choreography and stage presence have been lacking in the past. Simplicity, execution, confidence – perfection. A
Best Soul/R&B Female goes to Rihanna by default, even though Ciara had a stronger year and Rihanna took a break from the album grind for the first time in four years.
Imagine Dragons, “Demons” and “Radioactive”: It’s time for the AMAs Token Rock Band of the Year. Luckily they didn’t have to go to the tried-and-true Linkin Park because Imagine Dragons has been genuinely successful on the charts all year. They’ve gone the medley route, splicing together their decent current hit with their personality-free megasmash from over the summer. Those drumsticks are getting a workout, and lead singer Dan Reynolds almost pops a vein. Lots of energy, not enough impact. B-
Taylor Swift wins Best Country Album. It’s the best album in this lame category, but it’s not a country album. The actual best country album of the year – Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park – is nowhere to be found.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis win Best Rap/Hip-Hop Album. Probably undeserved.
Pitbull and Ke$ha, “Timber”: This is a Pitbull performance – unabashedly cheesy, high-energy, a little crass. High art? Not by a long shot. Silly fun? Sure. B
What on earth is an “alternative” artist? Imagine Dragons, apparently. One of the most popular rock bands in the world is apparently “alternative.” I’m confused.
Marc Anthony wins Best Latin Music Artist.
Justin Timberlake, “Drink You Away”: Why that song? Why the guitars? Why the messy vocals? Why the cheesy overemoting? Everything about this performance felt one or two degrees off its axis. He obviously had fun singing “a song about alcohol,” but I’m not sure I had as much fun watching it as I wanted to. B-
One Direction wins Best Pop/Rock Album for “Take Me Home.” Wrong. Moving on.
Florida Georgia Line feat. Nelly, “Cruise” and “Ride Wit Me”: We’ve heard this song more than enough in the last six months, and most of its charms have worn thin. And then Nelly throws it back to 2001. Why is Florida Georgia Line still on stage for this? Nelly’s got it covered. C+
Ariana Grande wins Best New Artist and order has been restored, at least for the moment. Yours Truly is one of the year’s best albums.
Rihanna, “Diamonds”: Her band seems way bigger than it needs to be. Also, this song is two years old – maybe not an iconic performance, but a solid one. (Her dance moves are giving off an oddly possessed vibe, my friends Ben and Jenna pointed out. I can’t disagree. ) B (Bill Maher’s presence here is utterly bizarre, by the way. Mama Fenty’s makes way more sense, and makes for some genuine emotion on a fairly reserved night.)
Justin Timberlake is the year’s Best Soul/R&B Male Artist. He thought Rihanna’s mom was adorable. Didn’t we all?
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Ray Dalton, “Can’t Hold Us”: Lots of energy, crowd surfing and my first glimpse of the charming Dalton. Nice. B+
Taylor Swift wins Best Country Female Artist, and the sky is still blue. Great point about avoiding genre labels, too.
Jennifer Lopez, Tribute to Celia Cruz: That’s the most I’ve ever heard Jennifer Lopez actually sing into a working microphone. Lightning-fast dancing. Hot. A-
Florida Georgia Line‘s “Cruise” (featuring Nelly) wins the first award in an utterly unnecessary new category, Single of the Year. Yawn.
The Best Soul/R&B Album is Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. JT’s a big winner tonight, and he’s making race jokes about it. Why not?
A Great Big World feat. Christina Aguilera, “Say Something”: Once again, it’s all about simplicity. Just a piano, two excellent voices and a poignant lyric. B+
Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Poetic Justice”: Though I would have preferred one killer song to two truncated verses, Kendrick kept it cool and kicked it old-school with solid rhymes. B
Lady Gaga feat. R. Kelly, “Do What You Want”: I’m not going to lie – the “President Kelly” reveal cracked me up. I’m not sure how I feel about the rest of it – R. Kelly’s blatant lip-synching, the sexual antics, the emotional breakdown at the end. I feel like there’s more than meets the eye on this performance, but I can’t figure out what the “more” is just yet. Undecided
Luke Bryan wins Best Country Male Artist. Once again, take a look at that blue sky.
One Direction wins Best Pop/Rock Band/Duo/Group. There’s more slashes in that category than in half the Saw movies.
Luke Bryan, “That’s My Kinda Night”: He’s working his hips more than his voice, but he’s got the crowd going, and his energy is a little bit infectious, even for a song I really don’t like. C+
TLC, “Chasing Waterfalls”: It was a short but sweet reunion for this legendary girl group. Their age is showing, but it didn’t detract from the quality of the choreography. B+
Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”: Ignore the cat. The cat was a stunt. I think Miley’s smart enough to know that the cat would get people talking, and I would argue that she’s using the cat as a commentary on how easily distracted we are by cute anomalies. Instead, pay attention to Miley’s impressive range and that fantastic ballad, one of the year’s most smartly constructed pop songs. B+
Taylor Swift wins Artist of the Year. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with it at all.