Twenty questions after watching the American Music Awards from row X of the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles:
1. Can Taylor Swift appear on an awards show without getting goofy?
Apparently not. After she opened the show with an over-the-top but entertaining performance of "Blank Space" — complete with floating furniture, burning bushes, and a bunch of backup dancers who looked like they were cast at an "Impersonate Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance" contest — she held the camera with a long, meaningful stare. But once the show went to commercial and she was walking offstage with her fellow performers, Swift flapped her arms like an overexcited chicken, clearly (and charmingly) pleased that she had nailed a complicated routine.
2. What was up with the China-specific content?
During the show's third hour, the AMAs dedicated two commercial breaks to filming content specifically tailored for broadcast in China — meaning that the in-person audience saw segments that weren't broadcast in the United States. First was the Chopstick Boys doing a performance of their single "Little Apple," which was touted as an international hit on par with Psy's "Gangnam Style." They recreated elements of its video, including the dancers in striped red pajamas and the bearded mermaids. Then Pitbull gave an award to Jason Zhang (a.k.a. Zhang Jie) for "Best International Artist" — an honor that is nowhere to be found, by the way, on the show's official list of winners on their website. The L.A. audience seemed perplexed by Zhang's presence, but he won them over with a speech in English, confessing to being jetlagged, seeming genuinely thrilled, and beautifully singing part of Michael Jackson's "Heal the World."
Those two segments prompted a host of other questions: Do the American Music Awards have a deal in China that requires goosing the broadcast with Sinophilic content? Were there any other nominees for "Best International Artist," or did the show just find the biggest Chinese star who was willing to get on a plane to accept an award? Did Zhang know the award wasn't being broadcast in the United States, and if so, why did he accept it in English? Was he trying to impress his fans back in China, or the industry crowd in the Nokia Theater?
3. Was the fire marshal on vacation?
During the songs, there were fireworks and lasers, but it seemed like half the performers wanted jets of flame — the bigger the better. At times, the flashes of heat could be felt 25 rows back in the Nokia Theater: people sitting in the front must have felt like well-done steaks.
4. Who got to use the full stage?
Since the show was a cavalcade of hit songs — with a few awards shoehorned in, handed out pretty much exclusively for people who actually showed up — most performers were allotted one-half of the stage (to allow the crew to break down and set up equipment on the other half). But four acts (out of 18) had enough clout to command the entire stage. Taylor Swift for "Blank Space" — well, she's the top-selling star in the business. Pitbull and Ne-Yo for a "Don't Stop the Party"-"Fireball"-"Time of Our Lives" medley — sure, Pitbull was the likable if awkward host of the show. Iggy Azalea and Jennifer Lopez with "Booty" — OK, it was the much-hyped show closer. Fergie with "L.A. Love (La La)" — huh? Say what now?
5. What was the AMA announcer's funniest off-broadcast moment?
Over the PA, the show's announcer had some flashes of goofiness, telling the audience during commercial breaks "You look fabulous tonight" and (before the performance by Iggy Azalea and Jennifer Lopez) "Lots of booty on the way, here we go." But nothing was better than his pre-show basso profundo announcement: "This is my natural speaking voice."
6. Did Jamie Foxx bring his daughter onstage so he wouldn't have to give Iggy Azalea the award for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album himself?
7. Is there any stranger presence than Lorde in the pop world right now?
Like Björk or Fiona Apple before her, Lorde is popular enough to get invited to lots of awards shows, careerist enough to accept the invitations and intense enough that she finds some way to mess with people's heads. For a while, not smiling was enough, but Lorde upped the stakes with her performance of "Yellow Flicker Beat," performing a substantial chunk of it inside a white box that made it impossible for the live audience to see her. Once the box lifted, she thrashed around the stage like she was a teenager dancing alone in her bedroom.
8. Do celebrity presenters and their banter get any weirder than on the AMAs?
The awkward pairings seem like they're picked out of a hat: "She's from the show The Newsroom, he's the lead singer of the Grammy award-winning band Train." And the most forced bit of patter was assigned to the cast members of Orange Is the New Black, who had to open up with "Three can be a terrible number in prison."
9. Is Patrick Dempsey really that short?
After the Gray's Anatomy star came out as a presenter, the microphone seemed to be a foot too short for everybody else, meaning that Iggy Azalea and the members of One Direction did a lot of awkward leaning while accepting awards. Eventually, the show's announcer had to tell the celebrities in the audience that the microphone would pick up their voices just fine if they stood up straight, and everybody's posture improved.
10. Is there anything more corporate than referring to people who like your music as your "fanbase" instead of your "fans"?
Yeah, we're talking to you, Sam Smith.
11. Who was doing the most blatant miming?
This was an extremely competitive category: many of the performances were obviously sweetened by musical instruments or multitracked backing vocals clearly not being played or sung onstage. It's hard to say for sure who went the next step of just purely lip-synching. It was pretty clear that Charli XCX's bassist and guitarist were just miming on "Boom Clap," but when she segued into "Break the Rules," they seemed to actually be playing their instruments (and they smashed them at the end, with great glee).
12. When audience members at awards shows hold up their phones to film what's happening, are they aware that there is an invention called television that will deliver better versions of the performances into their home?
13. What legend came off best?
Garth Brooks had energy but not much else, Lil Wayne looked more like a Lil Wayne impersonator, and even Wyclef Jean couldn't do much when guesting on Magic!'s "Rude." But Mary J. Blige was brilliant on "Therapy" (written by Sam Smith), standing at the microphone with a spotlight powerfully backlighting her, hypnotically singing over a groove that had elements of both gospel and doo-wop, reminding everyone that she's one of the great voices of the past 20 years.
14. What wireless networks could be found in the Nokia Theater if you tried to go online in the middle of the show?
A wide variety, most apparently dedicated to the people working on the show and starring in it, including "Nokia Sound," "LED Control 2," "House Talent Left," "House Talent Right," and "MOSH PIT."
15. Who had the best fashion accessory?
Ariana Grande was a strong contender with her crystal-encrusted monitor earpiece. But A$AP Rocky, guesting with Sam Smith, had a long gray scarf that somehow stole the show.
16. Who was the happiest to be on the show?
That appeared to be Imagine Dragons, playing "I Bet My Life" — that might be because after two years of flogging their debut Night Visions, they've finally moved on to new material. Their introduction said the band, with their single "Radioactive" staying in the Billboard Hot 100 for 87 weeks, had broken "all records." One can only hope those records include longest fingernails, career free throws, and most hot dogs eaten in a single sitting.
17. Who was the cuddliest couple?
Probably the newlyweds Jenny McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg, who came out to present Favorite Pop/Rock Album. While the clips of nominees played, they kissed and slow-danced. We can only assume that McCarthy was whispering in Wahlberg's ear about her crackpot theories that vaccines cause autism.
18. Who'll end up with the greater career, Diana Ross or Taylor Swift?
Miss Ross gave the inaugural Dick Clark Award for Excellence to Tay-Tay — so who has the upper hand? Both of them became superstars despite not being vocal virtuosos. Ross made her thin voice into a vulnerable trademark, scored 18 Number One singles (12 with the Supremes, six solo), and set the standard by which all other pop divas are judged. Swift is the most popular live performer in the country, has taken the celebrity breakup song to new heights, and (crucially) writes her own material. Right now, longevity gives the edge to Ross — but check back in 10 or 20 years.
19. What was the most unintentionally funny performance?
Selena Gomez did her new single "The Heart Wants What It Wants" — not a great title, given that the line's most famous use in recent years was Woody Allen's infamous declaration of love for Soon-Yi Previn. Gomez sang the tune effectively enough, though, standing in front of a video screen with special effects such as an exploding bouquet of flowers and a moon pulverizing into atoms. The climax was when she got angel wings — or so it seemed with the appropriate camera angle. Live, it just looked like a pair of wings were flapping on the video screen 10 feet above Gomez's head.
20. Could the American Music Awards be the cornerstone of a fake EGOT?
The AMAs were created by Dick Clark in 1973 to plug the hole in ABC's schedule when they lost the rights to broadcast the Grammys. Since they can't call themselves "the biggest night in music," they opt for "hottest" or "wildest" instead. Could there be a grand slam of second-tier awards shows, where people try to win a People's Choice Award, an American Music Award, a Golden Globe, and an ESPY, and instead of considering a superstar's chances at an EGOT, we could debate the odds of a faded celebrity winning a PAGE?