It made perfect sense that this commemoration of 2016’s most ubiquitous hitmakers happened in Las Vegas, since the evening did not lack for kitsch. It was a draw between Nicki Minaj and Camilla Cabello over who boasted the most unclothed male dancers, the Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart beefily strummed an acoustic guitar and, just as the evening was getting sleepy, Cher and an army of wigs hoofed through “Believe.” Here’s the best and worst of the night.
Arriving one after another, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Celine Dion were a brief respite from the Billboard Music Awards’ relentless focus on chart positions and Vegas-styled MOR pop. Combs took the stage to pay tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., the rap legend who would now be 45 had he not been tragically murdered on March 9, 1997. Combs then invited Biggie’s son C.J. Wallace to speak a few words. Although he ended with an ad for an upcoming iTunes documentary, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story, the tribute was touching. The same could be said of Celine Dion’s deathless ballad, “My Heart Will Go On.” Amidst a chandelier of sparkling lights, Dion sang a rendition of her theme to Titanic that left much of the audience in the tears; afterward, you could tell that co-host Vanessa Hudgens had trouble resuming her corny antics with Ludacris. Together, Combs and Dion reminded viewers that pop culture has a glorious past worth emulating.
At times, the Billboard Music Awards felt like an advertisement for the Las Vegas tourism board. So why not bring out Cher? The recipient of this year’s Icon Award shimmied gamely through a rote reprisal of “Believe,” her 1998 megahit that now sounds like a premonition of pop’s electronically processed present, and which she recently dismissed as “crap” and a “nightmare.” The pop gadfly re-emerged to perform “If I Could Turn Back Time” while wearing a replica of the famous buttocks-revealing outfit from her classic 1990 music video. It all seemed impossibly gauche and, unlike Celine Dion’s moving appearance, hardly certified her “icon” status. It wasn’t until she finally accepted her award where she shined, paying tribute to Diane Warren and other tunesmiths that are rarely acknowledged during ceremonies like this one. A refreshingly honest and illuminating presence. Maybe she should do a talk show next.
Nicki Minaj’s opening performance was like a mini-concert that embodied her maddening contradictions. She appeared regally in an ornamented, dominatrix-like outfit for “No Frauds,” then paraded amidst a regiment of dancers as David Guetta pretended to DJ on “Light Me Up.” She observed coolly from a sideline as underrated pop hitmaker Jason DeRulo attempted to wring magic out of “Swalla”; then she sang the treacly ballad “Regret in Your Tears” while a waterfall gushed behind her. Plus, there were gas masks and Lil Wayne in a fur coat. At nearly 10 minutes, the entire set had operatic peaks and decadent valleys that confirmed Nicki as a dominant rap performer of her era.
Though Drake secured a record-breaking 13 Billboard Music Awards wins, his speeches were loopy and lackadaisical. When he accepted the Top 200 Album of the Year for last year’s Views, he began by acknowledging how “a friend” didn’t “feel his project.” He appeared on the verge of saying something important but instead went with, “Vanessa Hudgens, you look amazing.” Later, he used his Top Artist speech to recite an Internet meme that got bleeped out during the telecast: “Life is like a roll of toilet paper: You’re either on a roll, or you’re taking shit from some asshole,” he laughed.
Look, in 2013 “Royals” already sounded like the work of a zealous music fan given a microphone, an audience of a hundred-million strong, and a chance to share secret longings. Performing her Top 20 hit “Green Light” in an expert recreation of a karaoke bar (complete with wasted spectators), Lorde reaffirmed the bond between her and her audience. You know that moment when a friend wows the lounge with her fearlessness and skills? One of our most down-to-Earth pop stars reminds us that she writes and sing hits, thanks.
The Chainsmokers attract a disproportionate amount of ire for what is mostly harmless, anodyne electronic pop – though their occasional bro-like antics don’t help. The much-hated-on duo’s performance of “Young” showed why they can’t win when it comes to the critics. Amidst a visual of sunset-illuminated clouds and American West vistas, Andrew Taggert clad himself in a jeans shirt and briefly strummed a guitar. But when he began to sing, it all fell apart. His voice was off-key, he awkwardly moved across the stage, and he sometimes descended into a stiff display jazz hands and wandering in circles. The best moment was when Alex Pall sang the bridge with a Vocoder effect reminiscent of Daft Punk, proving that the Chainsmokers may be great at winning Billboard Awards, but they haven’t quite nailed heartland authenticity.
“The happiest she’s ever been!” sister Noah gushed while daddy/palooka Billy Ray Cyrus, looking as if he stumbled off the Mulholland Drive lot, beamed. Based on her performance of new single “Malibu,” Miley Cyrus is the world’s happiest SoCal music fan. As the guitars strummed harder than the Chainsmokers’ Andrew Taggart managed 20 minutes earlier, Cyrus belted this valentine to blue skies and guys you imagine enjoying them. The balloons dropped onstage were a bit much – the kind of forced joy that reinforced the contrived casualness of “Malibu” – but at least Cyrus showed up Florida Georgia Line when it comes to summoning the warmth of early Eighties Urban Cowboy country-pop crossover.
Flanked by dancers who were clad in Cossack gowns and dowsed in several gallons of mansweat, Camila Cabello recreated the heat of a thousand fires captured on “Bad Things,” her hit with Machine Gun Kelly – only the singer performed before a Temple of Doom stage and a back projection of volcanic fires not seen in her native Cuba since the Mesozoic Era. Visitors to Disney’s Polynesian Village will recognize the feeling when appropriation would rather leap into highly stylized fiction.
Julia Michaels shined with a performance of “Issues” thanks to a convincing channeling of Patti Smith complete with fastidiously deployed fist pumps. Her small band recreated the Top Ten single’s violin plucks as Michaels’ voice cracked and strained to hit the high notes. It was the kind of method acting expected from a veteran Academy Award nominee who has to transcend mediocre scripts.
The American Top Ten is full of white bros affecting hip-hop cadences to show the world that their feelings matter as much as wearing sneakers without socks. When those hip-hop cadences fail, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, he can shout. And shout he did. Even worse: Before the performance, he was tasked with leading the moment of silence for Chris Cornell, which seemed like a total tacked-on afterthought instead of the tribute that a performer of that stature deserves.