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American Music Awards 2014’s 20 Best and Worst Moments

The verdict on Taylor Swift, One Direction, 5SOS and everything from Pitbull’s “Fireball” to Waka Flocka Flame

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift performing at the 2014 American Music Awards.

Kevin Winter/Getty

The butts have it! The 42nd American Music Awards brought out booty, booty, booty, rockin' everywhere — as well as the latest crop of teen pop, a few doses of punk attitude and even more reasons for us to love Taylor Swift. Though there were technically awards given out, the real victors were the folks that gave the best performances. See who really went home a winner! 

Lorde

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Lorde performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/AMA2014/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/Getty

Best of the Night: Lorde Thinks Inside the Box

As soon as the camera cut from the large glowing cube in the middle of the stage to a head-on close-up of Lorde's face bathed in blue light inside, it was clear that the pop-goth elf princess' performance of her Hunger Games hit "Yellow Flicker Beat" was going to be something special — even for her. The walls around her morphed from blue to orange to red as the song kicked into its main surging pulse and serpentine melody, and with the camera swirling around her, Lorde cast off her wizened hunch for a display of thrashing and headbanging worthy of Nine Inch Nails in their similarly claustrophobic "March of the Pigs" video. The action was so exquisitely intimate and intense, it was actually a bummer when the box lifted away right before the two-minute mark, letting Lorde loose upon the full stage and cutting short the most outré moment of an otherwise by-the-numbers night.

Wyclef

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Recording artists Nasri (L) of Magic! and Wyclef Jean perform onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/AMA2014/Getty Images for DCP)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Worst of the Night: Magic! and Wyclef Jean Are All Tricks, No Treats

Look, there's no easy way to spruce up "now some Canadians are going to come out and play reggae," but that still doesn't mean that Rita Ora has to call Wyclef Jean "a genuine reggae legend." Doing a rap cover of "No Woman, No Cry" 19 years ago does not a legend make, and a milquetoast performance in a paisley shirt with a magic trick shoehorned in won't do it for Magic! either.

AMA

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Recording artist Taylor Swift performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/AMA2014/Getty Images for DCP)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Best: Taylor Swift’s Magical Opening Performance

Early in "Blank Space," Taylor Swift promised, "I could show you incredible things," and she stuck to that promise during her AMAs opening performance of the song. In addition to partially bringing the song's video to life — including the palatial dinner scene and a series of tux-wearing hunks holding picture frames, including one with "No" written on him — she lit a rose on fire with her hand and used her power to blow a man off the stage (creating more fire). In the end, she opened a red door — with a claw-mark on it — to reveal the perfect mystery date who has no idea what he's in for.

Iggy Azalea

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Iggy Azalea performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/AMA2014/FilmMagic)

Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Best: Iggy Azalea Does Her Own ‘1989’

Although there's no rapping in "Fancy" or "Beg for It" that really deserves to win an award for anything, Iggy Azalea embraced her big night not as a MC, but as a pop star. Her solo performance of those two songs was more dancing than singing, evoking turn of the Nineties music videos like Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted" or Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" — two artists she has more in common with than, say, MC Lyte or Queen Latifah. Plus: Azalea's cartoon banners stealthily got the phrase "Pussy Power" on national TV. Even if we had criticisms of the performance, her crew of Forties-era dancing paparazzi made it seem like it wouldn't bother her anyway.

Lil Wayne

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Recording artist Lil Wayne (L) and actress/recording artist Christina Milian perform onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/AMA2014/Getty Images for DCP)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Worst: Lil Wayne’s Fiery Flop

How the mighty have fallen: When he wasn't being silenced by the censors and staring at Christina Milian behind his dark shades, Weezy mumbled about R. Kelly and warbled off-key. It was hard to believe this was once the most innovative MC in hip-hop, mugging in front of giant screens projecting fake fires (song title: "Start a Fire") and meandering around the stage like a lost child. It's pretty clear the plan for this performance was "we don't have a plan," and the song wasn't good enough to stand up on its own. If this is the best Tha Carter V has to offer, we could stand to wait a little longer for Lil Wayne's long-awaited new LP.

Charli XCX

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Charli XCX performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/AMA2014/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/Getty

Best: Charli XCX’s Teenage Riot

In a sea of female pop stars flaunting their artistic seriousness (Taylor Swift) and booties (pretty much everyone else), Charli XCX seized an opportunity to show off what makes her different: a genuine, raw punk-rock spirit. The 22-year-old British songwriter — the creative force behind Icona Pop's "I Love It" and the hook on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" — started her performance with "Boom Clap," the lighter-waving theme from teen weeper The Fault in Our Stars, filling the stage with romantic prom props. But before long, she'd ripped off her gauzy blue dress to reveal a devilish black vinyl get-up and had dancers in bondage gear burst her balloon arches. To the sounds of "Break the Rules" (a track off her forthcoming second album, Sucker) Charli led her all-girl band in a blitz of destruction. She forcefully grabbed her own boobs, threw her mic stand aside and ended by smashing a giant sucker that read "Sucker" to smithereens. It was the most rock & roll — and straight up fun — moment of the night.

Pitbull

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Host Pitbull speaks onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kevin Winter/Getty

Best: Pitbull Is Mr. Worldwide Broadcast

When it comes to award show hosts, Hugh Jackman is a talented song-and-dance man and Neil Patrick Harris will literally jump through hoops for you, but neither of them would return the American Music Awards' phone calls. So instead, producers went with the guy who's always available: Pitbull. The odds of him ever EGOTing are slim, but in his second stint as AMA host (who can forget his work last year?) Mr. Worldwide once again proved to be a reliable steward. He cracked corny jokes — "In the four minutes she was onstage, she sold another 68 million albums!" he chortled after Taylor Swift's performance — made a couple of wink-wink nods to the headlines (immigration, marijuana legalization, "apps that make you look better") and showed a better-than-most ability to read lines of a teleprompter. In short, he was the perfect host for a show where Diana Ross presents Taylor Swift with a lifetime achievement award. And all that happened before he went out and shimmied through a medley of hits both current ("Fireball") and forthcoming ("Time of Our Lives") hits. Mr. 305 then jetted cross-country for an a.m. performance on Good Morning America

One Direction

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Recording artists Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan of One Direction perform onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kevin Winter/Getty

Worst: One Direction’s Corny Performance

A note to the five fine English gentlemen who dominated the AMAs: We know the girls are going to scream whether you look serious or forlorn or pained as you sing, but you won three awards — more than anyone else at the show — you've gotta do better than sticking your band in a cornfield and standing stock-straight at your microphones under the fakest full moon since Teen Wolf. And a related note to the AMAs: We got zero audience reaction shots during One D's performance of "Night Changes." Remember when the VMAs cut to Justin Timberlake as soon as Madonna made out with Britney Spears? One shot of Taylor Swift during this dull moment would have gone far. 

Nicki Minaj, Jessie J and Ariana Grande

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Recording artists Nicki Minaj, Jessie J and Ariana Grande perform onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/AMA2014/Getty Images for DCP)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Best: Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj Bang On

The trio of Jesse, Ariana and Nicki brought a diva-riffic, decoupage of attitude, melisma and gold lamé. From Jessie J strutting through the crowd — and making strategic stops in front of Taylor Swift, Lorde, Sam Smith and one Kardashian — to Grande digging in and swinging for the fences, there were plenty of vocal acrobatics, and then Minaj came onstage firing, pushing this over the top with cadence and cockiness. As is the case with all Diva Showdowns (or Highlander), there can be only one, so we'll give tonight's honorary Aretha to Jessie J. But really, this one stood thanks to the combined efforts of all three women. You're all the best.

AMAs

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Taylor Swift poses in the press room at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

Jason LaVeris/Getty

Worst: What Is the American Music Award Anyway?

How are these awards voted on again? Is anyone going to remind us? How can you spend a night giving "American Music Awards" to Australians (Iggy Azalea, 5 Seconds of Summer) and Brits (Sam Smith, One Direction)? Is the idea of a fan-voted anything even relevant anymore in the Internet age? Is this just more proof that the one place that One Direction really had a better year than Katy Perry was in the arena of rabid social media followings? Can't we just call this "Dick Clark Productions Presents a Night of Performances by Incredibly Famous People" and use all that acceptance speech time to get an Eric Church performance?

Imagine Dragons

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Imagine Dragons perform onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/AMA2014/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/Getty

Best: Imagine Dragons Secure Next Year’s Victory

What's the surest way to prove you're not a one-hit wonder? Write another hit. Imagine Dragons appear to have taken that advice to heart with new single "I Bet My Life," which they performed live for the first time at the AMAs and which, based on bone structure alone, certainly seems destined to be a smash. All the recent crossover criteria was met: Namely, it sounded like the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons and Coldplay. But it was also pounding and strangely shimmering, just like the Dragons' "Radioactive," and with frontman Dan Reynolds sounding road weary ("I know I let you down, didn't I?") and guitarist Wayne Sermon summoning a winding solo. "I Bet My Life" also seems to signal a bit of an evolution for the Las Vegas rockers. Then again, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Imagine Dragons brought the pyro and lasers to the stage, and of course there was a choir too — how else are you supposed to premiere a song? It was the second straight year they've ripped it up at the AMAs — they'll probably be back in 2015.

Mary J. Blige

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Mary J. Blige performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)

Lester Cohen/Getty

Best: Mary J. Blige Takes Retro-Soul Back From British White Guys

The vintage microphone was telegraphing her punches a little bit, but this performance was something simple and timeless for a night that needed it. With a vocal performance nothing short of blazing, a wardrobe as black as Johnny Cash's, diamonds as big as Elizabeth Taylor and a song that's itching to be the new "Rehab," Mary J. Blige provided the awesome link between Etta James and Sam Smith (who co-wrote the thing).

Taylor Swift

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Taylor Swift speaks onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/AMA2014/FilmMagic)

Jeff Kravitz/Getty

Best: Taylor Swift Sticks to Her Guns

Minutes after Diana Ross called Taylor Swift a "true superstar," the young pop singer gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, underscoring her convictions, as the recipient of the inaugural Dick Clark Award for Excellence. First, she praised the former Supreme for paving the way for female artists. "I'm so blown away to have just received an award from Diana Ross, who just over the course of her career has stood up for herself so many times in a time when it was not popular for a woman to stand up for herself," Swift said. "I'm so honored. . .you're beautiful." Later, she turned her attention to her belief in the album format. Earlier this year, she penned an op-ed about the value of music — and albums — and recently, she reiterated her stance while defending her decision to pull her records from Spotify. "To the fans who went out and bought over a million copies of my last three albums, what you did by going out and investing in music and albums is you're saying that you believe in the same thing that I believe in," she said during her speech. "[You believe] that music is valuable and that music should be consumed in albums and albums should be consumed as art and appreciated."

Waka Flocka Flame for Pine Bros.

Best: Waka Flocka Flame’s High-Minded Commercial

No, we didn't all have a mass hallucination last night. The AMAs offered a surprise nestled between a Gap ad and a Lincoln commercial: an is-it-real-or-is-it-fake spot for Pine Bros. throat lozenges starring throat-shredding rapper Waka Flocka Flame. Surrounded by billows of smoke, the rapper extolled the virtues of soothing his vocal cords. Trying to avoid breaking into laughter, Waka played it straight: "So the next time you need some throat relief" — dramatic pause — "for whatever reason, take your Pine Bros." 

5SoS

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: (L-R) Recording artists Michael Clifford, Luke Hemmings, Ashton Irwin and Calum Hood of 5 Seconds of Summer perform onstage performs/speaks onstage during the 2014 American Music Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

Michael Tran/Getty

Worst: 5 Seconds of Summer’s Punk-o-Rama

Between the Manic Panic hair, vintage Weezer ringer and stripped-back stage set (complete with caution tape covering their amps — ooh, caution!), 5SoS got the punk posturing down, but in the end they were just a serviceable power pop band. Their cover of the Romantics' "What I Like About You" came off stiff. When red-bandana'd drummer Ashton Irwan shouted, "All right, AMAs, what I like about youuu!" it came off cardboard stiff. Lillix wore it better.

Selena Gomez

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Recording artist/actress Selena Gomez performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Kevin Winter/Getty

Best: Selena Gomez’s Heart Wants…a Human Centipede?

So Selena Gomez was totally singing about Justin Bieber, right? That's what all the talk has been about regarding the former main Bieb squeeze's live debut of her tear-jerking power ballad "The Heart Wants What It Wants." But as titillating as the background of the song may be, the background visuals flashing behind Gomez's performance were way more mind-blowing. The dramatic floor-to-ceiling projections included seraphic wings that transformed Gomez into an angel and slow-mo exploding flower vases that spread a gory splatter of red petals. But the image that is probably most vividly emblazoned in our minds is the final one — the shadowy silhouette of a man pressing his palms against a fogged-up pane of glass — which resembled not only Justin Bieber but also, more disturbingly, the poster for The Human Centipede.

DJ Mustard

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 25: Producer DJ Mustard performs onstage during day 2 of the 2014 Life Is Beautiful Festival on October 25, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)

FilmMagic/Getty

Best: DJ Mustard’s T-Shirt

Fergie went full "L.A. Love" for her performance, wheeling a lowrider on the stage, borrowing YG and emerging from a crazy Ken Kesey-gone-Day of the Dead bus. Though the architect of the song, DJ Mustard, rolled out in a T-shirt and chain, probably how he does California every day.

Ariana Grande

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Singer Ariana Grande performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/AMA2014/Getty Images for DCP)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Worst: Ariana Grande Doesn’t Go Big

How would you like to immediately follow that Lorde performance? Ariana Grande already had her work cut out for her, on a night where Taylor Swift is waving flaming roses. Grande turned her giddy, oversized "Problem" inside out, crooning it as a mellow cabaret act, which wasn't exactly the best defense. Her saxophone pal was part Kenny G, part Tim Cappello of Lost Boys fame. All that was missing was the sound of wine glasses clinking.

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Recording artists Jennifer Lopez (L) and Iggy Azalea perform onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Lester Cohen/Getty

Best: Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea Bring Up the Rear

With the emergence of Iggy Azalea in 2014, one had to wonder: Would her AMA performance with Jennifer Lopez be the moment the booty baton was passed? In short, no. Because while Lopez, who at this point is sort of the Rock Raines of Rump (hey, they both relied heavily on their backsides), certainly played nice with Iggy, it was clear that this was her performance. She got to hit all the contortionist high spots, and was the beneficiary of the best production moments. When she and Azalea did share the stage, it was still clear who was in charge. Then, just to further cement her status, Lopez closed the show solo, strutting and shaking her way across the stage before backing it up to Pitbull to send the show home.

AMA

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Actresses Danai Gurira (L) and Lauren Cohan speaks onstage during the 2014 American Music Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

Worst: And the Winners Are…in Tiny Text!

Wondering who won Single of the Year, Favorite Country Group or Favorite EDM Artist? First off, what's wrong with you? Secondly, don't worry, so were we — since none of those awards were handed out during the show itself. Instead, they were relegated to a blink-and-you-miss-it mention during the AMAs' closing credits. They sacrificed the likes of Katy Perry — who won Single of the Year and Favorite Adult Contemporary Artist (ouch?) — as well as Beyoncé, Florida Georgia Line and Calvin Harris. In favor of. . .well, we're not exactly sure what. And look, no one is pretending that the AMAs (or most self-congratulatory gatherings, for that matter) aren't basically just a series of choreographed performances periodically interrupted by acceptance speeches and strategically placed products, but "Awards" is in the title of the show; it would've been nice to at least pretend the hardware actually meant something.