What happened? Somehow the American Music Awards turned out to be bizarrely undisastrous this year. As cheesy award shows go, this one has always been on a sub-cheddar level, usually held back for the holiday season and usually totally ignored. But for some reason, the AMAs decided to be a big deal last night, packing the show with stellar performances, from Taylor to Cardi. They invited Khalid instead of Khaled. They did an Aretha Franklin tribute that focused on music instead of Madonna giving a speech. Tracee Ellis Ross hosted in style, wearing a series of outfits from black designers and doing a dance routine to a medley of hits from Cardi B, Childish Gambino, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and Aretha. The whole show made you suspect they were actually trying to impress music fans — what a concept.
The night’s big winner: Taylor Swift, who announced last week she was going to perform “I Did Something Bad,” without revealing that she was going to spend the weekend in between urging people to vote Democrat in the midterms, inspiring thousands of citizens to register. Her political affiliations might come as no surprise to those of us who’ve actually listened to her music. (What, you never noticed the “boys and boys and girls and girls” lyrics of “Welcome to New York”?) But the controversy added extra spice to her already salt-intensive “I Did Something Bad.” She sang on a giant backdrop that resembled the Wu-Tang Clan logo, because Wu-Tay is for the children. She kept bringing the ruckus with a giant snake, and got bleeped for uttering the line “if a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing” — a timely sentiment, to say the least.
Swift spent the rest of the night winning awards, including Tour of the Year, Album of the Year and Artist of the Year, while rocking her Bowie-esque disco-ball outfit. She’s steered away from award galas in recent years, after being a longtime staple of them all, so just the fact that she showed up for this one was a big deal. But she had something she wanted to say. You know Tay — when this girl gets caught up in a new enthusiasm, she’s not the type to play subtle about it. At the end, she made a point of amplifying her recent righteous political statements: “I just wanted to make a mention of the fact that this award and every single award given out tonight were voted on by the people. And you know what else is voted on by the people? The midterm elections on November 6th. Get out and vote. I love you guys!”
Cardi B, nearly a year after “Bodak Yellow” and “Look What You Made Me Do” traded places at Number One, was in fine form all night. She turned “I Like It” into a psychedelic trap-salsa extravaganza, striking a pose at the center of a pinwheel in groovy checkerd boots. She role around the stage on a bike, while Bad Bunny and J. Balvin got wheeled in on golden supermarket shopping carts and Offset danced in the audience. She also won a few awards, wearing a Carmen Miranda-style fruit basket of an outfit and dedicating her award to her newborn daughter Kulture Kiari Cephus. When Migos won later for best rap group, Offset gave another shout out to Cardi: “I want to thank you, sexy lady.”
One of the night’s big emotional highlights was seeing Missy Elliott go off again with Ciara, strutting through a convulsive medley of “Level Up” and “Dose.” They evoked the days when these two ruled the world on “1, 2 Step” and “Lose Control.” Mariah Carey took a pinker-than-pink diva bow to introduce her brand new single “With You,” which is nowhere near as memorable as “Without You.” Since Jennifer Lopez was also in the house, there were hopes that these two would unify our nation by officially ending the I Don’t Know Her cold war, but it didn’t happen. Instead, Lopez also debuted a new Sia-penned single called “Limitless,” a great moment, at least until she started singing and revealed a limit or two. A very pregnant Carrie Underwood did a touching version of “Spinning Bottles,” while Dua Lipa did “One Kiss” and Ella Mai rocked the aisles with “Boo’d Up.”
Camila Cabello was another one of the night’s big winners, snuggling next to Taylor Swift in the audience and winning four awards, earning a playful bop on the nose from Tay as well as singing “Consequences.” Ashlee Simpson showed up on the red carpet to la-la with Evan Ross (Tracee’s little brother). Billy Eichner gave a heartfelt speech about the importance of voting, and even Khalid got into the electoral act, paying respects to his Texas roots by saying “Shout out, Beto!”
Panic! at the Disco did a strange cover version of a Queen song that nobody really needs to remake again. (My favorite karaoke bar actually charges people two bucks extra to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) They got introduced by the cast of the new Freddie Mercury biopic, although it might have been more fun and more original to see the movie stars trying to cover “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” Still, you have to applaud Panic for coming back strong as the award show token rock band du jour, since Dave Ghrol seems to be sitting this cycle out. 21 Pilots got an intro from Amber Heard, who lamented that it was “the number of TV show I’ve been on that haven’t been picked up.” (Did Busy Phillips turn down that joke?)
The night ended with another surprise: a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin that included none of her hits, treating her strictly as a gospel artist. It was a daring but sensitive way to approach Aretha’s mighty legacy, one that she no doubt would have appreciated. (Even if Ross called her “the goddess of gospel,” a decidedly strange little catchphrase.) Glady Knight, CeCe Winans, Donnie McClurkin, Ledisi and Mary Mary did a medley of hymns, honoring her Amazing Grace album. The tribute was devoid of cliches, genuinely educational, highlighting a side of Franklin’s music that remains little-known for her pop fans. It was a graceful final note. And after three hours of an award show without a single “come on, y’all” from DJ Khaled, you might give up a hallelujah yourself.