The 44th annual American Music Awards featured Green Day getting fired up, the Weeknd cooling out in an ice cave and Drake providing just a little bit of shade. Here’s 20 moments that made the evening.
By Christopher R. Weingarten, Hank Shteamer, Suzy Exposito,Kory Grow and Keith Harris.
Best of the Show: Green Day
Green Day borrowed a melody from punk’s past to lambaste Donald Trump during their performance of “Bang Bang.” As fireballs shot behind them, leader Billie Joe Armstrong led a chant of “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.” – an updated lyric from 1982’s “Born to Die” by Austin hardcore crew M.D.C. People have been chanting the lyric in recent weeks at post-election protests and Green Day perfectly connected the dots between punk history and the discontented present.
Best: Drake Being Drake
Though he didn’t perform, few people at the AMAs were more exciting to watch than Drake. When he accepted Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album from actress Nina Dobrev, he reminded us of the congenial persona that drew us in: “Me and Nina were on Degrassi together, by the way,” he said, turning to her. “Congratulations on all your success.” When he won Best Hip-Hop Artist, he provided the right amount of beef to keep things interesting: “More Life is coming soon, and more chune for your head top, so watch how you speak on my name.” And as much as we hate to see the “world premiere” of a commercial on an awards broadcast, his performance in the Apple Music ad was inspired.
Best: Selena Gomez Sounds Off
This summer, Selena Gomez fans were crushed after the pop star cancelled her Revival world tour and announced a break from the spotlight. Gomez cited numerous health concerns, stemming from her ongoing battle with lupus, a chronic auto-immune disease that required her to undergo many grueling rounds of chemotherapy. Yet the singer emerged victorious and unshaken in a red gown Sunday night, making a rare public appearance to accept the American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist. “I had everything, and I was absolutely broken,” Gomez said to the rapturous crowd, including a teary-eyed Lady Gaga. “I kept it together and I swore I would never let you down, but I kept it too much together to where I let myself down. … I’m not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore. … If you are broken, you don’t have to stay broken.”
Best: Chrissy Teigen Practically Drops an FDT-Bomb
Although cut out graciously by the censor, Chrissy Teigen’s post-election discontent manifested in the F-bomb (or two) heard ’round the world. While introducing a performance by her hubby, John Legend, Teigen took a chance to blow off some steam. “This next performer is a brilliant musician and a wonderful father,” she said, “who makes a pretty damn good breakfast sandwich and he has been known to write love songs about me. What can I say? I’m very inspiring” She continued, “But his songs are bigger than either of us, and on the heels of what’s been a really interesting, fucked-up, fucking election, for all of us … I think we can all use a little love tonight.” If her social media presence is any indication, Teigen is the fire to Legend’s ice; and the American Music Awards was a gigantic powder keg of political tension.
Best: Sting Turns on His Legendary Charm
In a three-song medley that worked its way backwards from his respectably rousing new LP 57th & 9th (“I Can’t Stop Thinking About You”) to a pair of Police megahits, Sting brought a welcome dose of actual star power to the show’s final stretch. Looking tanned and toned and sounding ageless on “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take,” he demonstrated in that inimitably Sting-y way that that the glow of success can coexist with the scrappiness of effective rock. Though he didn’t call out Trump by name in his Award of Merit acceptance speech, his mention of America’s “spirit of welcome and inclusion” seemed like a timely and tasteful bit of social commentary.
Worst: Justin Bieber Phones It In, Long Distance
Justin Bieber was on tour so he appeared in a pre-taped performance in Zurich. Striding around the stage in black T-shirt and skinny trousers that bunched weirdly around his calves, the star was not only upstaged by his backup dancers, but by his audience. He let them sing just about every other line of “Let Me Love You” and the shots of them in the audience, bawling uncontrollably and taking pictures of the event, showed that they were investing a lot more in the experience than their idol was. No matter how bored you are with Justin Bieber, this performance suggested he’s way more bored with himself.
Worst: Oh, Lets Give Prince an Award, I Guess?
There are many, many ways the AMAs could have chosen to honour Prince’s life and music. But most of those would have required a lot of effort and planning, so why not just randomly give an award to a 32-year-old album? Apparently, a spike in sales after Prince’s death in April made Purple Rain eligible for the mysterious “Top Soundtrack” award. (It had won Favorite Pop and Rock Album and Favorite Soul and R&B Album back in 1985.) Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, accepted the award on his behalf, and delivered an emotional speech about the man who “wanted to be known as the world’s most prolific songwriter.” But we can only imagine the smirk and side-eye Prince would give this stunt.
Best: Bruno Mars Goes Not Just Knee Deep Into Funk’s Past
Bruno Mars stormed out at the start of the show looking like the days when Bell Biv DeVoe, Tony! Toni! Toné! and After 7 were duking it our for Favorite Soul/R&B Band, Duo, or Group. His set wasn’t especially flashy (save some tasteful pyro), his setpiece didn’t have much of a theme compared to Fifth Harmony’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, and we’ve already heard him do “24k Magic” on Saturday Night Live. But, still, he was the most electric performer of the night – maybe the most electric performer pop music has right now – and his show was choreographed somewhere between James Brown and Broadway. Mars pulled off the fluid popping and locking of the era that “24k Magic” recalls and covered Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” for good measure. He reacted to the insane accents of his band like Prince or Michael Jackson would, setting a night’s bar for physical performance that no one would (or could) match.
Best: Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj Bring Sex on the Beach
Ariana Grande and a typically libidinous Nicki Minaj turned their AMAs performance of Grande’s “Side to Side” into a naughty beach party, no doubt barely conforming to ABC’s standards and practices. With palm trees behind her and sand below, Grande sang and writhed among shirtless male dancers who later humped around in ways that would’ve gotten Bobby Brown arrested in the Nineties. Minaj rapped “I give zero fucks,” and she spread her legs and touched herself in a way that was more Cinemax than prime time. The night’s dirtiest performance ended with a big, humping conga line.
Worst: Chainsmokers Trap Travis Barker in a Box
Before nabbing the AMA for Favorite EDM Artist, the Chainsmokers and Halsey got a shot to reprise their lukewarm VMAs performance of Number One smash “Closer” – this time with feeling. They brought an assembly of dancers, fireworks and legendary drummer Travis Barker of Blink-182 fame. Still, Barker and his drum kit were nowhere to be seen (or heard) until the final 20 seconds of the song, when he rose gloriously from the confines of the black cube behind a fedora’d Alex Pall. When he did appear, he was mostly drowned out by the throb.
Best: Lady Gaga Strips Down
Pop music’s most visual artist came to an awards show armed with little more than a stool, a Gretsch and some fake grass. A cross between Stranger Things and Rhinestone, her “twilight” performance of “Million Reasons” was a one-woman Alternative Nation. In a night where Green Day played, it was still the most Nineties moment: A simple, stripped-down rock song stealing the spotlight from a night of wild set-pieces and Swiss Justin Bieber drop-ins.
Best: The Weeknd Welcomes Us to His Ice Cave
In an evening of drab sets and weak singing, this spectacular performance from the Weeknd stood out as a display of both ingenuity and talent. As otherworldly as the song itself, the elaborate, claustrophobic staging looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and was illuminated by red and blue stage lighting as the camera rocked from side to side. And when the singer himself soared with assurance into his upper register, it was clear that he’s completely shed his earlier persona as druggy, sex-obsessed creep to ascend to the level of shimmering unknowable celebrity. The Weeknd might not have taken any awards home last night, but he was definitely a star.
Worst: Gigi Hadid and Jay Pharoah Bomb
The interactions between model Gigi Hadid and SNL expat Jay Pharoah lacked even the slightest spark … and their material was even weaker. Pharoah suggested that Beyoncé’s follow-up to Lemonade would be called Arnold Palmer and Hadid assayed a Melania Trump impression (“I love my husband. President Barack Obama”). These lines were certainly shaped like jokes, but someone forgot to add the funny parts. As for the political humor? Its lack of satirical bite made it sound just cheap and crass: “Listen, I love Bruno Mars,” Pharoah said in the voice of Donald Trump. “I don’t know what color he is so I can’t deport him.”
Best: Twenty One Pilots Bring the Ruckus
With an energy level second only to Bruno Mars, Twenty One Pilots brought some much needed action with their renditions of “Heathens” and “Stressed Out.” So many other AMAs performers simply stood and sang (Lady Gaga, Sting, even Green Day), so to see Tyler Joseph – dressed in a black ski mask and tank top – twirling and tiptoeing, jumping off a bass drum and generally thrashing his bass about the stage was a welcome change of pace.
Best: Zayn’s One Direction Shade
“This one just has my name on it, right?” quipped Zayn Malik as he accepted his AMA for New Artist of the Year. This offhand dig at his erstwhile One Direction mates was the latest in a series of attempts by Zayn to distance himself from his boy band past: In the past two years, he’s feuded with Louis Tomlinson on Twitter, given the 1D single “Perfect” a thumbs down, and said the group’s music wasn’t representative of his tastes as a musician. Zayn then launched into a more conventional acceptance speech, but it was already clear that his cutting remark is what we’d all recall in the morning.
Worst: John Legend’s Unofficial Kodak Commercial
After a fiery yet heartwarming introduction by his wife, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend transformed from sensitive piano man to a total cornball Sunday night. The singer-songwriter ditched the keys to belt out his song “Love Me Now” as family photos with Teigen and their daughter Luna lit up the screen behind him. But the Legend family photos soon became more randomly selected, showcasing a colourful array of happy strangers. While tenderly highlighting those whose love transcends gender, race or borders, the slideshow recalled camera commercials of yesteryear. Love wins, Legend cheeses.
Best: Fifth Harmony Set the Night Ablaze
Was it just a bomb performance? Or was it a not-so-subliminal warning of the end times? Whatever the case, Fifth Harmony garnered super-heroine status in an otherwise tepid awards show. Descending from a cage and into the smoking rubble of a war zone, Fifth Harmony strutted hard to their latest hit, pro-woman clarion call “That’s My Girl.” Clad in five variations of distressed khaki, the divas didn’t miss a single beat or a high note, rivaling the hot jets of flames shooting behind them. You heard these ladies: Good girls better get bad.
Best: DJ Khaled Is Still United Rap Nations’ Diplomat
Love or loathe his high-energy motivational-speaker/hypeman/party-starter/human-photobomb schtick, DJ Khaled has the ability to get Rick Ross and Future to show up to a performance of “Do You Mind” – ultimately the only surprise of the night.
Worst: James Bay Brings the Snooze
In an already excitement-deprived show, Bay turned up early to help kill the momentum even further. The nattily dressed British singer-songwriter delivered a capable rendition of his durable hit ballad “Let It Go” that felt tailored for the final stretch of a Bay headlining gig rather than a short-attention-span AMAs crowd. Aside from a few obviously coached fans, the audience looked like they were headed for a nap less than an hour into the broadcast.
Best: Teyana Taylor’s Save
Taking the stage on the arm of towering right-fielder Bryce Harper to present the New Artist of the Year Award, Teyana Taylor almost hit the floor after tripping over the train of her lacy gown. The actor and singer wobbled precariously, but she managed to right herself and turned the near-fall into an impromptu shimmy – a rare moment of spontaneity and poise on an otherwise wooden night. “Y’all didn’t see that,” she deadpanned with Fletch-like cool. A rising star avoided being a cautionary GIF.