Lessons from the 2014 Billboard Music Awards

Lorde

I spent much of the time from 8-10pm last night asking myself why I was watching the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. Most of the performances were uninspired and the award winners were foregone conclusions. It’s not as if this were the only awards show featuring performances from the likes of Pitbull, Imagine Dragons, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez and Jason Derulo. And though I like Ludacris, the prospect of him hosting was not enough on its own to draw me to the show.

I realized that I’m drawn to awards shows like this because I’m fascinated by the way that organic moments of spontaneity can arise from a rigorously pre-programmed spectacle. I’m looking for two or three performances that rise above the mediocrity of the majority. I’m looking for something to reaffirm my belief that popular music and even awards shows can be thought-provoking or aesthetically satisfying. And indeed, while the 2014 Billboard Music Awards were largely forgettable and eminently skippable, I found a few topics worth discussing before I switched over to Mad Men.

1. Can we just pretend the Michael Jackson hologram never happened?

Setting aside the ethical debates surrounding the release of Xscape, a full album of new material that Michael Jackson recorded and discarded during the recording sessions for Thriller and Off the Wall in his 1980s heyday, the idea of “resurrecting” this beloved icon for cheap novelty rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sympathetic to the argument that this newfangled form of posthumous pop star “celebration” is suited to a technically innovative artist like Michael Jackson, but this performance felt like a stunt instead of a necessary or pertinent extension of the Jackson legacy. I don’t know if Jackson would have wanted his image reincarnated in technically precise but emotionally neutered fashion during a B-grade awards show five years after his death. I also don’t know if I needed such a literal representation in order to appreciate the impact of Jackson’s “new” music. Usher’s reverent tribute on the iHeartRadio Awards (more unnecessary awards shows!) was far less flashy and far more satisfying.

I do know that what I saw last night was not “a Michael Jackson performance.” It was a performance engineered by a record label with a marketing initiative. I’d like to believe that this MJ resurgency is motivated at least in part by a desire to celebrate an iconic pop star, but the financial incentive is too big and troubling to ignore.

2. Competence trumps artistry.

If the performance roster for this awards show can be interpreted as an indicator of who the American public likes right now – and it can’t, given that Beyonce, Drake, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Adele and Jay Z were nowhere to be found – raw ability appears to be in vogue, while outsized personalities have taken a back seat. Ariana Grande has the number one song on iTunes right now despite lacking a discernible personality and a compelling stage presence. (Before the #Arianators jump down my throat, keep in mind that I think she has an impressive voice and makes excellent pop music.) Several people have told me the name of the Imagine Dragons lead singer, but I’ve swiftly forgotten each time. Again, the band’s music is fine, but I have no sense of who the band members are or why I should care about them. On the country side, Florida Georgia Line have temporarily forged quite the career out of making the least distinctive, most generic music known to man, with Luke Bryan following close behind.

I’m extrapolating based on an unfair sample size. The truly weird, exciting stars are either too famous or not famous enough for the middle ground of the Billboard Music Awards stage. Nonetheless, the absence of gonzo personalities like Lady Gaga, 2 Chainz or Ke$ha (who presented but didn’t perform) was striking.

3. Even on the Billboard Music Awards, great music comes out to play.

I hate complaining that popular music sucks, because it’s never really true. Some pop stars are popular because they’re attractive or appealing in some extracurricular way, but many of them have earned their fame (or some degree of it) by cultivating distinctive musical abilities. There’s no use pretending that the American public has universally poor taste. To that end, three performances that made the night tolerable:

1. Lorde debuts her new single “Tennis Court” with her typical herky-jerky dynamism


2. Shakira goes big and bold with her anthemic single “Empire” from her new album of the same name


3. The two most popular female country stars, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, team up to take over the charts


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