Among the 16 performances on the American Music Awards last night, some were diamonds and some were pretty rough. Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and TLC were among the performers who covered pop, rock, rap and country – and even a few genre crossovers. How did they all stack up? Here’s our take on each performance, from worst to best.
16. TLC featuring Lil Mama, “Waterfalls”
Leading up to the AMAs, TLC announced they would perform with a surprise guest in the place of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who died in 2002. Naturally, it turned out to be Lil Mama, who portrayed Lopes in VH1’s recent biopic CrazySexyCool and who replaced the late singer on a recent remix of “Waterfalls.” Predictable guest aside, the performance wasn’t a total scrub, but it suffered from the group’s vocals being mixed low and the trio’s overall low energy, other than the zealous 24-year-old’s rap midway through. Rarely has a chorus seemed so prescient.
15. A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera, “Say Something”
Although Aguilera looked serene and sang beautifully while A Great Big World pianist Ian Axel writhed with emotion, their performance stopped the show in an unintended way: It was a snoozer. Although it was sentimental, the song was slow and the ensemble’s general dearth of movement, combined with sparse lighting, added up to a pleasant-sounding nonstarter.
14. Pitbull and Ke$ha, “Timber”
Pitbull fit right in as the host of the American Music Awards, but his performance of his country-rap-dance hybrid “Timber” seemed like a mixed metaphor come to life. To hammer home the crossover element, his guest Ke$ha wore cowboy boots and daisy dukes, and she flanked herself with Western-themed backup dancers. On the plus side, they had fireworks and when the camera panned the audience, Mark Cuban seemed to like it.
13. Katy Perry, “Unconditionally”
In another confusing clash of styles, Perry drew exclusively from Asian imagery for her performance of the Prism track “Unconditionally.” The song’s four minutes found her fluttering about the stage in a peach kimono, twirling with a purple paper umbrella and disappearing in a poof of smoke with her hands in a praying motion as if some higher being decided she’d had enough.
12. Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”
The star of Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” performance was the skyscraper-tall space kitten that lip-synced every word of the singer’s most emotional hit. It even cried diamond tears. Miley herself wore kitten-adorned undies and focused on a moving vocal performance. In a final act of humility, she even let the kitten wink and stick its tongue to the side.
11. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Can’t Hold Us”
In Miami for a concert, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis allowed their visages to be transported through time and space to L.A. for their performance of “Can’t Hold Us.” Macklemore began their performance with jumping jacks and never let his energy down for a minute. Performance-wise, it was a fitting bridge between Rihanna’s and Jennifer Lopez‘s numbers, but in hindsight had trouble living up to either one of those.
10. One Direction, “Story of My Life”
The British boy band made themselves at home amid a backdrop of hanging light bulbs and what looked like broken picture frames. It was a smart set for their nostalgia number “Story of My Life,” and each of the singers acted out his lines with all the emotion of the first time he was singing it.
9. Luke Bryan, “That’s My Kind of Night”
Country singer Luke Bryan put his hands together, and so did the audience as he sang “That’s My Kind of Night,” a track off his latest LP, Crash My Party. Like a perpetual motion machine, he wiggled his pelvis and bounced up and down, all to the approval of Taylor Swift who spent the song singing along to Bryan’s lyrics about catfish dinner like a “winner winner.”
8. Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Poetic Justice”
Although he wasn’t the only rapper performing at the AMAs, Lamar was the best among them. Back by a stripped-down band on “Swimming Pools (Drank),” off last year’s good kid, m.A.A.d city LP, he rapped so smoothly about swimming in a pool full of liquor that ABC’s family friendly censors didn’t second guess it. He also jazzed his way into “Poetic Justice,” in which he told the audience, “You can get it.” And they did.
7. Ariana Grande, “Tattooed Heart”
When Grande came out to sing a few lines of her single “The Way,” it seemed like pure Mariah Carey. She was dressed in a long red gown and she gesticulated through each curve of a very Mariah-like melisma. But then the snapping came in and a barbershop quartet added some doo-wop backing vocals for her R&B jam “Tattooed Heart.” As she clasped her red-and-black mic, it was clear she’d found her own way with the song and done it well.
6. Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, “Cruise” and “Ride Wit Me”
Country duo Florida Georgia Line’s two frontmen sang their single “Cruise” with swagger, pacing the stage as their fans sang along in the audience. It got even better when rapper Nelly came out in a Rolling Stones T-shirt to add a verse, before they completely turned it around with a “Walk This Way”-style fusion of country and rap as the Line backed Nelly on his 2001 single “Ride Wit Me,” wresting its legacy back from a certain cereal commercial that seems to be everywhere right now.
5. Justin Timberlake, “Drink You Away”
The opening acoustic guitar strums of Timberlake’s bluesy, country-rock jam “Drink You Away” were played by none other than J.T. himself. The song evokes a Black Crowes ditty, but in Timberlake’s hands it’s a big genre-bending, feel-good sing-along that really actually does feels good.
4. Lady Gaga and R. Kelly, “Do What U Want”
After acting like a secretary fielding questions about whether her performance would be American-themed or not, Lady Gaga found herself on the line with “President Kelly.” After almost asking for an “Italian Hero Sandwich of Love,” R. Kelly summoned Gaga to his oval closet for a JFK-Marilyn Monroe routine that found Gaga dancing on his desk and being flung around by would-be Secret Servicemen.
3. Imagine Dragons, “Demons” and “Radioactive”
As Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds mentioned in his acceptance speech for Favorite Artist, Alternative Rock, his band has only been together for five years. But it’s with performances like tonight’s one-two punch (or is that one-two drum hit?) of “Demons” and “Radioactive,” they’re proving just why they’re worthy of music awards. The highlight, of course, was watching each band member pound away at his own percussion instrument, two of which looked like the size of a townhouse.
2. Jennifer Lopez, Celia Cruz Tribute
When Lopez appeared to sing her tribute to the salsa queen Celia Cruz, who died a decade ago, she wore a black sequined cape-like dress and danced to her backing band’s Cuban rhythms. Then out came the dancers, who leaped over one another and twirled each other in the air. Four of those dancers crowded her at the end of her first number and when they moved, she was wearing a rainbow salsa dress, and then for the third song, she quick-changed again into a cocktail dress. Couture aside, Lopez channeled the excitement of Cruz and danced like an acrobat.
1. Rihanna “Diamonds”
Just before the Barbados-born pop singer accepted the AMAs’ first-ever Icon Award, she gave a performance that showed she could live up to the honor. She hovered just in front of her gold-mesh microphone and sang to the audience, “We’re like diamonds in the sky,” and when it was over, she let go of the song’s seriousness and smiled. The audience gave her a standing ovation, which wasn’t surprising considering she was, in fact, the night’s icon.