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American Music Awards 2017: 10 Best, Worst and Most WTF Moments

Diana Ross’ family affair, Pink and Kelly Clarkson’s gravity-defying voices, BTS’ American television debut and more big moments from the 2017 AMAs.

Pop whisperer Dick Clark founded the American Music Awards in 1973 as a people’s-choice alternative to what he perceived as other award shows’ stuffiness; the focus rests squarely on the stars, who win awards voted on by fans and labeled “favorite” instead of the secretive ballots and snooty connotations of being named the “best.” Sunday night’s edition (the 45th), held at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles and featuring performances by Motown legend Diana Ross, inaugural American Idol Kelly Clarkson, high-flying pop star Pink and smooth-voiced upstart Khalid, among others, was a celebration of big hits and big voices – and, oh yes, there were a few awards given out, too.    

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BEST: Tracee Ellis Ross and Diana Ross make the night a family affair

Tracee Ellis Ross’
hosting gig wasn’t entirely the result of the comedian and actress’ mother, Motown
legend (and AMA fixture) Diana Ross, receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement
Award – the younger Ross stars on the excellent sitcom black-ish, a fixture of presenting network ABC’s lineup. But her obvious
enthusiasm for the gig gave the night a different kind of energy than you’d get from other award-show hosts. She approached her MC duties as a fan of music
(and her mom) and as a woman, avoiding mean-spirited snipes and instead focusing
on her effervescent excitement, as well as the female energy that would power
the night’s best performances (the awards were another story; more on that in a
bit). At the close of the show, Diana received the This Is Your Life treatment via a video montage that celebrated her
many past AMA appearances and groundbreaking live performances, which she
followed up with a triumphant medley of her biggest hits. While accepting the
award, she invited her entire family onstage for a generation-spanning
celebration that was punctuated by her overjoyed eight-year-old grandson, Raif-Henok
Emmanuel Kendrick (his mother is Diana’s eldest child, Rhonda Ross), bidding the crowd adieu. 

Jeff Kravitz/AMA2017

BEST: Kelly Clarkson and Pink defy gravity

The show opened with
Jamie Foxx, flanked by first responders and his daughter Corinne, honoring “the power of music to help
us heal from hurricanes, wildfires, hate, hatred filled violence” – a
statement proven by Pink and Kelly Clarkson dueting on R.E.M.’s somber 1992
track “Everybody Hurts,” which the pair turned into a gospel-tinged
anthem of resilience that showed off their potent voices. Clarkson received
shout-outs throughout the night thanks to ABC’s attempt to jam American Idol synergy (the reboot premieres on the network next year) into every
available nook and cranny of the three-hour broadcast.  But as she showed with
her giddy reactions from the audience and her boisterous medley of
her 2003 can’t-believe-it’s-love anthem “Miss Independent” and her
funk-tinged current single “Love So Soft,” she’s someone who should be on TV as much as possible.
Pink also double-dipped, performing the love-weary title track from her
just-released Beautiful Trauma while tethered
to the side of the nearby J.W. Marriott hotel; the death-defying stunt, however, hardly affected the aerial-happy pop veteran’s vocal
performance.   

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WORST: Hailee Steinfeld, Alesso, Florida Georgia Line, and Watt’s misguided country crossover

Country was a tiny
part of the night – so tiny, in fact, that when Keith Urban was presented with
the Favorite Male Artist, Country trophy, Bad
Moms
star Kathryn Hahn hastily noted that the axe-slinging Australian had
won the two other country awards he was
nominated for as well. (Good thing he showed up.) The one nod to Nashville on
the performance roster was “Let Me Go,” the tropical
house/country-pop Frankenstein by Hailee Steinfeld, electro DJ Alesso, topline
writer Watt and crossover-crazy duo Florida Georgia Line; the performance
involved Steinfeld and the FGL guys wandering around a neon-lit tableau, their
shaky vocals exposing the middling track’s seams.      

Michael Tran/Getty

WTF: Selena Gomez’s horror-movie tableau

The first televised performance of “Wolves,” Selena Gomez’s eerie yet anthemic collab with the upstart Dutch producer Marshmello, placed the young singer in a horror-movie nightmare; clad in a slip and white sneakers (as well as a blingy diamond cross around her neck), Gomez struggled against a phalanx of nightgown-clad dancers who wanted to either turn her into a zombie or just change her sleepwear into something more modest. By the end of the performance, Gomez had scraped knees as well as blood seeping through her newly blonde hair, presenting a slightly unsettling image that was made even more so by her well-documented hiatus and health problems – was the blood a way to distract from her seemingly lip-syncing the track, or did things onstage get too intense?

Jeff Kravitz/AMA2017/Getty

BEST: DJ Khaled holds the key to positivity

While accepting the
Favorite Hip-Hop Song award for his star-studded collaborative track “I’m
the One,” DJ Khaled oozed positivity, acknowledging Diana Ross’s covers of his 2010 party jam
“All I Do Is Win”
and God, as well as his toddler-aged son Asahd, the credited
executive producer for his hit-heavy 2017 album Grateful and a celebrity in his own right. Later on, while introducing Macklemore’s Skylar
Grey-assisted run through his reset-button
single “Glorious,”
Khaled offered up a hearty shout-out to Miami
that, thanks to his enthusiasm, made sense, even though he was standing on a
stage some 2,700 miles away. 

Kevin Winter/Getty

WTF: Twitter stans turn Christina Aguilera’s Whitney memorial into a catfight

Of all Sunday night’s
performers, Christina Aguilera probably had the hardest job – she was charged
with honoring Whitney Houston and the looming 25th anniversary of the Houston/Kevin
Costner weeper The Bodyguard via a
medley of “I Will Always Love You,” “I Have Nothing,”
“Run to You,” and “I’m Every Woman,” all of which appeared
on the flick’s mega-selling soundtrack. It’s a pop steeplechase of the tallest
order, containing four tough songs ushered into the pop pantheon by one of the
20th century’s most stunning voices, and Aguilera performed admirably – hitting
a few wobbly notes while showing off the slightly deeper quality of her own pipes. The
camera cut to Pink, who was lost in thought, and because she wasn’t emoting
properly a few people on Twitter jumped to the conclusion that she wasn’t happy
with the performance, isolating screengrabs in an effort to dismiss Aguilera by
proxy. (The women sparred in the early aughts, but made amends long ago.) For her part, Pink snapped back at
the reaction police, but the virtual attempts to stir the pot deserve a
stern gif

Michael Tran/Getty

WORST: Portugal. The Man’s defection from Computerworld

The awkwardly
punctuated quintet Portugal. The Man are responsible for this year’s left-field
rock crossover hit: the simmering “Feel It Still,” which resembles a
cross between Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself,” a Black Keys b-side,
and a moody turn-of-the-decade car commercial. While alt-rock acts are supposed to chafe against being ushered into the pop world, the opening disclaimer
to their performance – a backdrop that read, in huge letters, “NO COMPUTERS
UP HERE, JUST LIVE INSTRUMENTS” – came off as mean-spirited and, well, kind
of silly, given that their stage setup was laden with synthesizers and pedals
that are powered by… oh, why spoil it. 

Jeff Kravitz/AMA2017/Getty

BEST: Khalid and Imagine Dragons mash it up

The AMAs’ nominee
slates are pretty bloodlessly crafted; true to its “give the people what
they want” origins, the show uses sales
figures and other “key fan interactions”
to determine who might
receive a trophy. But even keeping that in mind, it felt like Khalid,
the 19-year-old singer-songwriter whose woozy “Young, Dumb and Broke”
is one of pop radio’s bright spots, had been snubbed from the New Artist of the
Year roster – his frank lyrics, keen pop instincts and young-Bill-Withers voice
give him a generation- and genre-spanning appeal. Grafting “Broke”
onto Imagine Dragons’ stomping “Thunder” wasn’t the ideal setting,
but it did at least allow the increasingly overwrought Favorite Pop/Rock Duo or
Group winners to lighten up a bit. 

Michael Tran/Getty

BEST: BTS bring choreography back to the boy-band world

Korean boy band BTS‘ American television debut was definitely the night’s most hyped moment – the producers shrewdly placed them right near the end of the show, and imported a phalanx of young women to freak out over the septet’s performance of the hyperactive, shape-shifting “DNA.” In the years since One Direction (who were represented by affable New Artist of the Year winner Niall Horan) split up, the boy band void has been palpably felt; BTS’ synchronized moves and the lovelorn lyrics of “DNA” make them feel like a bit of a throwback to the TRL era, but their forward-thinking music, which borrows from Kpop’s meticulously detailed sonics and hip-hop’s spaced-out beats, places them ahead of the late-2010s’ pop pack.  

Kevin Winter/Getty

WORST: Artist of the Year dudes blow off the night

Tracee Ellis Ross’ opening
monologue shouted out the “brave women” in music who reflected culture’s
movement toward ladies being able to own their experiences and bodies in public,
and the girl-powered lineup bore out that claim. But the real story of the
year was told by the nomination slate for Artist of the Year, which was made up
of four solo artists and one duo – and no women, unless the parade of sullen
singers assisting The Chainsmokers’ downer dance hits count. (They don’t.) Four
of those five nominees blew off the ceremony entirely because of other
commitments; winner Bruno Mars accepted his (deserved!) trophy while tooling around
an undisclosed location in the back of a minivan. Pop’s recent dominance by men
did, finally, break at the end of the summer, when the dual successes of Taylor
Swift’s self-referential “Look What You Made Me Do” and Cardi B’s
“Bodak Yellow” opened the gates for female artists like Demi Lovato
and Pink to claim a signifcant presence in the upper echelons of the charts; here’s hoping next year’s nominations will result in a
slate more reflective of the mood Ross outlined in her rousing speech.