Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards broadcast often seemed like a battle for pop music’s very soul, as fake smiles and cheesy promo tie-ins vied with serious vocal prowess and displays of genuine emotion for three long, eventful hours. Rising stars like Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan earned their places on the big stage, but it was the bona fide divas (Rihanna, Celine Dion and Adele, who didn’t even sing live) – and always-welcome veteran Stevie Wonder – who ultimately owned the night. Here’s who triumphed and tanked at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Rihanna Belts a Monster Torch Song
Before Rihanna picked up the fan-voted Chart Achievement Award, she issued a timely reminder that Beyoncé isn’t the only superstar singer to release a major LP in 2016. The decidedly old-school “Love on the Brain” – one of Anti‘s surprisingly potent deep cuts – is a passion-fueled torch song given a Rihanna spin (“I’m tired of being played like a violin/What do I gotta do to get in your motherfuckin’ heart?” she sings on record). On Sunday night she fully leaned into the track, showcasing the raspy, gritty side of her voice. Her fiery performance showed not just how far she’s come since the “Pon De Replay” days but where she could potentially take her overflowing charisma and newly unearthed vocal nuance.
BEST: Kesha Covers Dylan, Takes High Road
After all of the past week’s backstage drama, Kesha quietly prevailed on Sunday. To recap: Dr. Luke’s label Kemosabe initially granted Kesha permission to perform at the BBMAs, then changed its mind, then finally relented when the singer denied the rumor that her performance would address her legal battles with Luke and his imprint. Striking in black bolo tie and white suit, Kesha delivered the tribute to Bob Dylan she’s said she always intended, backed by Ben Folds’ piano and a stark violin accompaniment. Kesha’s version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” was understated and heartfelt; the singer turned Dylan’s steely ballad into a statement of quiet strength, suggesting her refusal to be defined by others. The standing ovation she received – a long overdue moment of dignity for an artist whose musical dreams became real-world nightmares – was anything but obligatory.
WORST: Ludacris Goes Full Lech
No awards-show utterance is quite as seat-shiftingly uncomfortable as an attempted dirty joke that falls flat. To open the show, Ludacris announced that Sunday’s ceremony marked his third time hosting the BBMAs, calling that feat “My favorite threesome.” His co-host, Ciara, doomed all night to play glamorously bland straight woman to Luda’s icky quipster, corrected him: He must have meant “threepeat.” In response, Luda dropped the weak punchline, “You like threepeat; I like threesome.” The host not only went on to introduce Heidi Klum as a woman who “likes being naked on the beach,” but brought back his initial failed gag to say of the three female stars of the upcoming movie Bad Moms, “Here’s another threesome I’m all about.” Worse still, Luda’s creepily PG-13 attempts at humor overshadowed the one righteous dig he got in last night: “Unlike the Oscars, we actually have black nominees this evening.”