A few hours prior to Sunday's 53rd ACM Awards in Las Vegas, an interesting and unexpected initiative was launched on social media. Dubbed #FansFirst, artists like Thomas Rhett posted lengthy messages about how the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting affected them personally and stated they'd be wearing special numeral lapel pins on the red carpet in honor of the 851 injured and the 58 killed, as well as the importance of "1" human life.
Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Lady Antebellum all sported the pins, which accompanied literature distributed at the ACMs – but not by the ACM – that spoke to "join[ing] the country community in conversation." Despite such an impressive lineup of stars behind the campaign, the ACM Awards neglected to mention it during the telecast, an oversight that summed up the show as a whole.
Taking place in Las Vegas just slightly more than six months after last fall's mass shooting, fans, artists and onlookers alike were curious to see how the ACMs would address the tragedy. The answer was "briefly," by way of two short, scripted segments: an opening monologue by nominees, and a highlight reel of the ACM and country-music industry's charity work in the wake of the shooting. Otherwise, there was a noticeable absence of a single direct tribute to any of the hundreds of victims, casualties, family members or first responders still suffering from last year's attack, resulting in a broadcast that felt more reluctant than resilient.
The show's most direct address of the October 1st tragedy came during its 80-second cold open, in which Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris spoke about "the healing power of music." But the opening came across not so much as a cathartic, emotional tribute as a focus-grouped explanation as to why the show would be avoiding any such overt tribute.
We are thankful to get to be a part of country music. We are thankful we get to live in a country where our voices can be heard. We are hopeful that together we can create a better world for our children. To the many still living with injuries and trauma from that night in Las Vegas, we want to do everything we can to continue to support you-and today we honor you by wearing the number 851. To the fans, road families and family members of those who lost someone-we wear this number today-58-to let you know one thing: we have not forgotten you. We have not forgotten your names. Carrie, Nicol, Steve, Andrea, Denise, Sandy, Chris, so many lost, and so many loved ones still mourning. You are with us not only tonight in Las Vegas as we come together, but every single night in every single town. We love you all, Thomas Rhett and Lauren #fansfirst #vegasstrong
The Academy's desire to not transform its award show into what could have easily become a somber night was well-founded and correct, but it often felt stiflingly unwilling to confront any difficult emotion head-on, something a simple performance (Maren Morris and Vince Gill's "Dear Hate," perhaps?) could have remedied.
While wisely avoiding the type of intense backlash faced by their rival CMA Awards last November that arose when the CMA issued a set of media guidelines advising reporters not to discuss the Vegas shooting, the ACM Awards nonetheless remained equally avoidant, going so far as to create a distracting retrospective theme that focused, inexplicably, on the 25th anniversary of three hits from 1993.
"If you have a heart, you're going to need to bring a tissue," ACM CEO Pete Fisher told Rolling Stone Country last week of the ACM's post-Route 91 plans. "You're going to see some very honest emotion come off that stage." But in hindsight, it's hard to imagine what he was referring to.
In the end, it was Jason Aldean who offered the most heartfelt emotion and connection to the victims. "It's been a rough year," he said, accepting his Entertainer of the Year award and fighting back tears. "To my Route 91 people, you guys are in my heart, always. Love you, guys. And we love Las Vegas. Vegas strong."
For Aldean at least – who sported a "58" on his lapel on the carpet – the answer was simple: put #FansFirst.