The mononym queens had it at Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards. The two best reasons to tune in to an otherwise mostly dreary three-hour ABC telecast were striking performances by generational bookends Lorde and Cher, one of whom dressed like a 71-year woman, and the other of whom dressed like a 20-year-old. (You know where this is going…)
Drake also made a case for dudes with single names doing okay for themselves by winning 13 of the strictly charts-based trophies in one evening, breaking Adele’s record. As television impact goes, though, this wasn’t really his night. His live performance took place down the street from the hosting T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at the neighboring Bellagio, where he did “Gylachester” from inside the fountain — an idea that must’ve sounded cool when he didn’t realize he’d be getting lost amid a sea of spray jets and fireworks. You kept thinking how much more interesting it would’ve been to see Drake rafting (or maybe jet-skiing) his way across the casino lake during the commercial break.
Drake also didn’t really cap off the night in the best fashion when he chose to wrap up his climactic acceptance speech for Top Artist by telling a toilet joke that was mostly bleeped by the network censors. Not to worry; the hip-hop superstar — who is the reigning male king of pop by both default and actual talent — will have many other awards appearances in years to come to make a more potent impression.
But, at 71, Cher is not going to waste her shot. She was on hand to accept Billboard’s Icon Award, and although she did not devote any of her acceptance speech to the salty anti-Trump commentary that’s found on her Twitter feed, she found other ways to make an impression. Even though the action had already been thick with contenders vying for the title of most ample display of flesh, Cher still managed to come up with the most daring “Are You Sure They Can Do That on Television?” outfit, which involved a sheer top and heart-shaped pasties. That was before a costume change that had her reviving the same biker-chick-lingerie bodysuit that riled up the world back in 1989, along with a Cleveland-sized curly hairpiece that looked to have been sewn together from about a hundred of Paul Stanley’s old wigs.
She remains a force of nature, however much nature does or doesn’t have to do with it, and gets credit for — unlike some of her younger forebears on the show — singing live for at least part of her second number, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” if not the overtly Autotuned “Believe.” Her acceptance speech was winning, too, as she announced her birthday the day before — “and it’s not an applause thing,” she pointed out, but “I could do a five-minute plank, okay? Just saying.” Then she credited her career to mostly random fortune. “I think luck has so much to do with my success,” she said, “…mostly luck and a little bit of something thrown in.” God — sorry, luck — bless her.
It was Lorde wearing what some viewers characterized as mom jeans in a performance set in a karaoke lounge, where the young singer started intently at a TV showing badly typeset lyrics of her own “Green Light” while breaking into increasingly geeky and endearing dancing. Much of the viewing audience was probably baffled by a piece that veered so close to some kind of performance art on a show mostly filled with the most obvious kinds of sexy choreography. But Lorde’s adventurousness on a show so tied to conventionally sexual dance moves made you believe in life after the love of music, which is the sort of philia that barely survives a show like this.
Nicki Minaj opened the telecast with a nine-minute medley full of tired S&M and steampunk imagery, with moves by her and a team of dancers inevitably promising imminent sexual congress with the nearest pole, floor or flat surface. She’s done some kind of variation on this on enough major music awards shows over the years that even when her dancers are topping off their shiny plastic or leather bondage looks with gas masks, there’s a feeling of “been there” for an artist in need of a new creative director.
Miley Cyrus, meanwhile, dressed up as Sheryl Crow for the occasion, singing a down-home and acoustic version of her new single “Malibu,” looking beatific, if not clean as the driven snow — or, as sibling Noah introduced her, “for the first time in years with her pants on, my big sister!” After this perfectly pleasant performance, it was hard to know exactly what generated Cyrus’s crying at the end, but give her credit, amid a show sometimes characterized by its “me so horny” dance gymnastics, for having the instinct to take a right turn and counter-program.
Celine Dion provided the real class of the program, not surprisingly, bringing back the “Titanic” belter “My Heart Will Go On” for its 20th anniversary, wearing a mega-puffy-shouldered gown that made you fear for just what kind of jellyfish afflicted Leo in his final descent into the sea, but looked utterly awesome regardless. She didn’t seem to belong on this show — it was a little like having your aunt Beverly Sills drop by the kegger — but a reminder of the golden age of AC was a beautiful thing.
The sight of actual instruments on stage was rare, beyond Cyrus’s cello and steel guitar and upstart Julia Michaels’ plucked violins. Ed Sheeran did his acoustic guitar on steroids thing, but the impact was blunted by his being piped in from Santiago, Chile. (Bruno Mars’ climactic performance was not only piped in from Amsterdam but taped days earlier.) Funnily enough, the first appearance of a possibly live instrument on the show came 35 minutes in when Andrew Taggart of the EDM-pop duo the Chainsmokers picked up an acoustic guitar, although he put away this visual signifier after a few authenticating bars (an approach also favored by very brief guitar-wielder Sam Hunt).
Lesser moments included a lengthy, live advertisement for an upcoming Apple Music documentary on rapper Notorious B.I.G., Chris Daughtry doing an on-air pitch for an advanced new remote control, and one of the members of Imagine Dragons being drafted to introduce a moment of silence for Chris Cornell, presumably because they were the closest thing to a rock band booked on the show.
Ex-Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello’s debut on the show as a solo artist did not leave the impression she is going to have the Harry Styles career out of her group after all. Halsey fared better, yet, mysteriously, accepted her awards in an uncomfortable-looking, old-fashioned brassiere that created more chatter than her okay performance.
“Let’s just kiss ‘til we’re naked, baby/No, don’t be afraid to show it all,” Bruno Mars sang at the show’s pre-taped end, apparently reading off an instruction list handed out to all the presenters. “I need a drink,” cohost Vanessa Hudgens said as the show went to credits, a line that may have been penned in a less perky manner than she delivered it.