Justin Bieber was the big winner at Sunday's American Music Awards, taking home four awards including Favorite Artist of the Year. Which isn't too surprising — the AMAs are determined by fan voting, and if Twitter's trending topic list is any indication, Bieber's online fanbase is extremely dedicated (to put it mildly).
In addition to taking home all the awards, Bieber symbolized two of the evening's common threads: Teen idols' years-long domination of the pop world and musicians' overarching desire to help America break out of its doldrums, economic and otherwise. Bieber dedicated his Favorite Artist of the Year award to his mentor Usher, who when handed the mic reminded the audience that his performing career had spanned 18 years, even though he's only 32. The night was capped off by a performance by the combined New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys, who tore through a medley of their biggest hits as a way of previewing their forthcoming tour.
On the flip side, a somber vibe underscored many of the performances. Both Bieber and Katy Perry were assisted by choirs, with Bieber bringing out a gospel choir for his ode-to-a-better-world "Pray" and Perry wrangling a bunch of singing children to introduce her pyrotechnic-heavy performance of "Firework."
Kid Rock performed his mournful ode to his beloved, beleaguered Detroit, "Times Like These," which sounds like an updated, stripped-down version of Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown." And Ke$ha took a guitar with the word "HATE" scrawled on the back and smashed it, hammering home the "be yourself" message of her new single "We R Who We R."
Other high points: Ne-Yo's medley of tracks from his new comic-concept album Libra Scale was at times conceptually muddled, but his showmanship — and his relationship with his backup dancer — kept things compelling. Pink's hyperkinetic performance of "Raise Your Glass" looked like a salute to 1991, with the singer dressed like Neneh Cherry and skateboarders crowding the set.
There were some hiccups onstage, however. Rihanna's show-opening medley, one of a handful of performances in which the featured artists descended to the stage from the rafters, was marked by pitch problems — which, given that she's sounded like a different singer on each of the songs she's released this year, shouldn't be all that surprising. Perry and Taylor Swift (both of whom also came down from the skies) also suffered from vocal wobbliness, while Carlos Santana's duet with former Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale — a turgid version of T. Rex's "Bang A Gong (Get It On)" — was a misfire in both concept and execution.
Overall, though, the show was a well-oiled machine — a bit staid, even. Nicki Minaj, whose debut full-length Pink Friday comes out today and who wore a dress that looked fashioned after an exoskeleton crafted from office supplies, was one of the few to go off-script, reminding the public at home to buy her album before she presented the award for Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist to Rihanna. It was a bit of cravenness similar to Macy Gray's "My new album drops Sept. 18, 2001 / Buy it" dress, and it injected a bit of swagger into the proceedings.
Maybe what the show needed was a bit more Kanye West — whose new album, the five-star-worthy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy , is probably today's most anticipated new release, and whose absence was felt (particularly during Diddy Dirty Money's performance of "Coming Home," a bombastic track that sounds heavily inspired by West's 2007 track "Good Life" and will likely become a big hit). Perhaps West's appearance would have livened things up a bit, or at least added an element of unpredictability; at the very least, it would have made people curious about whether or not the bit of OneRepublic's "Apologize" that Swift passionately threw into her performance of "Back to December" was directed toward his place in the audience.