Because nothing says "I Heart Radio" like doing a television program, the Clear Channel network threw itself an awards show last night and got a whole bunch of A-list performers to show up. The iHeartRadio Music Awards, a cross between MTV's Video Music Awards (hip graphics, lots of performances) and the Golden Globes (stars seated at tables, the pervasive air of having been invented to fill up NBC's primetime schedule), ended up being a more entertaining concoction than expected. Below are ten of the best and worst moments.
1. Rihanna missing in action
Show staffer #1: "Rihanna's missing."
Show staffer #2: "Oh, boy."
When the first trophy of the evening, for Hip-Hop/R&B Song of the Year, was awarded to Rihanna's "Pour It Up," RiRi was nowhere to be seen (allegedly, she was stuck in traffic on the 405, on the other side of Los Angeles). But she was in her seat by the time the show's first hour was over, and gave three acceptance speeches for other awards (including Artist of the Year).
2. Best introduction
Before Luke Bryan played his "That's My Kind of Night," allegedly a country song but really an arena-rock stomper, he got this ribbing introduction from Blake Shelton: "This man is more than a good buddy to me — he's a giant pain in my ass."
3. Oddest award
Giving a Best Lyrics trophy is a great idea, and while we might not have chosen "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus as the pinnacle of lyrical art, that's what the fans voted for. If it seemed strange that the trophy went to Cyrus when the song was written by five other people, it got even mores when the award was picked up by her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, who for some reason thought it was a good time to talk about George Jones dying in April 2013.
4. California knows how to party
The show was a tribute not only to the clout of Clear Channel but to Los Angeles as a musical mecca, with artists ranging from Chris Martin to Rita Ora telling stories about how L.A. affected their lives and careers. The best one belonged to Kendrick Lamar, who remembered how when he was just eight years old, he got to see Dr. Dre and 2Pac filming a video in Compton: "My town, my city, my swap meet." Then Lamar did a killer cover of that song, "California Love."
5. A "new" Michael Jackson single
Michael Jackson's "Love Never Felt So Good," co-written by Jackson and Paul Anka, was previously unreleased, unless you count the version by crooner Johnny Mathis. Now it's the leadoff track for the posthumous Jackson album Xscape, so the record company pulled out all the stops for its debut last night: Album compiler L.A. Reid introduced the song and Usher did a great dance routine. And even if the it isn't on a par with Jackson's best work, it sounded like it could have easily been the sixth single off Bad, which is more impressive than it sounds.
6. Army vs. Navy
The most unusual award category: Best Fan Army. This was a battle of six armies worthy of an Avalon Hill boardgame: Little Monsters vs. Swifties vs. Lovatics vs. Mahomies vs. Arianators vs. Rihanna Navy. Rihanna's naval power triumphed, but since the show's awards were voted for by the fans themselves, aren't they all essentially voting for themselves in this category? Can we have a Most Self-Reflexive Category award next year?
7. A home-improvement encounter
Backstage was a constant parade of stars heading from their trailers to the cameras, sometimes hugging the walls as stagehands shuttled elaborate set-pieces on and off the stage. Standing against the wall, we caught up with Swedish EDM superstar Tim Bergling, better known as Avicii, and asked him if he had moved into his new house in the Hollywood hills. "No, we're doing renovations," he told us. "We have to take out all the stucco."
8. It's not live, it's Memorex
For a putatively live show, there were lots of taped segments. It seemed fine when it was Katy Perry or Aaron Paul driving around L.A., understandable when it was Lorde accepting Best New Artist from New Zealand and weak when Ed Sheeran and Arcade Fire were both seen doing songs from recent club gigs.
9. Coke is it
Steven Tyler appeared to push the limits of NBC standards and practices with an explicit cocaine reference while reminiscing about his wild times at the Sunset Marquis hotel: "For all the blow that we did here, I imagine you could fill that pool up twice to the top."
10. Theology and astrophysics
Most of the evening's musical performances were solid, if not especially memorable. The final performer, however, was Pharrell Williams, who showed up with a full squad of go-go dancers and reminded everyone what an amazing year he's had with a thrilling medley of "Come Get It Bae," "Blurred Lines," "Get Lucky," and "Happy" — singing, dancing, and flirting with Rihanna. Afterwards, he accepted the "IHeartRadio Innovator" trophy from Gwen Stefani; after praising the Lord, he said, "If you don't believe in God, you at least believe in the universe and all the stars above — there's much more than we are. You gotta believe in something bigger than yourself." It was a much-needed perspective on a night where there often didn't seem to be anything bigger than Clear Channel.