TV Review: Swift, Cabello, Lipa, Cardi Leave Dudes in Dust on American Music Awards

Only Taylor Swift and Billy Eichner got political — just by urging voting — but the politics of pop were in a play, in a good way, with the dominance of young female performers at the top of their game.

Taylor Swift at American Music Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Oct 2018
Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

Elections have consequences, and by electing Taylor Swift as the American Music Awards’ artist of the year, pop fans gave the superstar another platform from which to spread her crazy, incendiary, rabble-rousing entreaties to… find a polling place. “Every single award given out tonight was voted on by the people,” Swift said, upon picking up her third and final award of the evening, “and you know what else is voted on by the people is the midterm elections Nov. 6. Get out and vote.” As if we needed a reason to like her about 25% more right now.

No one would accuse the AMAs of getting repeatedly or unusually political in the broadcast that took place from L.A. Microsoft Theater Tuesday night, but one presenter did take a cue from Swift, and that was presenting comedian Billy Eichner, who took the audience to church as he sermonized, “Young people of America, the biggest election of our lifetime is happening on Nov. 6.” (The last one may be hard to beat in bigness, actually, but forgive him his passion.) “Now is the time, if you believe in equality for women, for people of color, for the LGBTQ community, if you believe that climate change is real and we need to do something about it… You can go to vote.gov like Taylor Swift told you to.” And then he handed off “to a man I love knows voting, Shawn Mendes!”

Aside from these moments, everyone shut up and sang, but you could find a kind of pop politics just in the lineup of the show, which was far more solid than your usual AMAs telecast. If the good citizens of 4Chan are looking for something else to be aggrieved about besides Swift revealing herself as not the closet reactionary of their dreams, they could take up as a cause the blatant anti-male discrimination of this year’s show. Female performers outweighed male singers and rappers by more than a 2-to-1 ratio, reflecting the fact that, while male names still occupy a disproportionate amount of overall chart slots in the charts, it’s mostly the women we care about for more than a song at a time. Women killed it over the course of the three hours, for the most part, and about the only men who made any impression at all were Mendes and Jesus (the latter just by being the focus of a show-ending gospel medley… sung by powerful women).

One of those impressive ladies was the one sitting next to Swift in the audience, Camila Cabello, who brought out an orchestra — real or canned, it was hard to tell — to accompany her definitely live-sung  “Consequences.” “Try a little tenderness” is definitely not the operative motif in pop right now, but Cabello’s wounded ballad, which has been a highlight of her opening slot on Swift’s stadium tour, established that she has breadth. And actual breath, too, with the lip-synching machine turned off for once in the evening.

Cardi B came off adorably, even if you’re a Nicki Minaj stan or had other reasons for coming in with something other than adoration on your mind. Her performance of “I Like It” with token male guest stars Bad Bunny and J Balvin owed a lot to Busby Berkeley — music awards show directors do like their overhead shots these days — but the headgear she wore at various points in the evening owed more to Carmen Miranda. The performance itself proved that hip-hop can be a thing of joy and primary colors, and her shout-out to motherhood in her acceptance speech might have endeared her even to the farthest right. (Well, okay, maybe we shouldn’t get carried away here.)

Dua Lipa had a fun production number that wasn’t any less charming for looking like something out of a 1980s MTV VMAs show. Coming off a fake elevator into a dilapidated industrial high-rise, Lipa marched in circles with a gang of wholesome urban n’er-do-wells who painted each other with glow-in-the-dark colors, and for a few minutes it was if Martha Quinn were going to post-announce the clip and we would never, ever have to worry about climate change.

If pure singing is your thing — and hey, it makes for a nice flavor — Carrie Underwood nailed a ballad about alcoholism from her new album. It’s called “Spin the Bottle,” and the set design had her surrounded by bottles, while the platform she was singing on… spun. The AMA production team can get a little literal sometimes, but that didn’t distract too greatly from a bravura reading of a song that isn’t even a single and probably isn’t likely to become one.

Sometimes powerful women do best by being powerful women… as opposed to, you know, singing about being powerful women. Jennifer Lopez had one of the less effective performances of the night, and it’s not just because she stood still and wore trousers, which definitely is in the department of hiding one’s light under a bushel. She was premiering “Limitless,” a theme song from her upcoming message movie, “Second Act,” and among the lyrics being sprung on us for the first time were these: “I am a woman who roars…” (So far, so Helen Reddy.) “Nobody opened my doors…” (Uh-oh.) “I am a woman saying I want more…” (Is it too late to walk this back?) “So give me what I’m asking for.” Supposedly, Sia wrote this song, and as a Sia fan, I’m refusing to believe it till we get independent confirmation.

Some other female performances were also terrific. Ciara and Missy Elliott — one dances, the other doesn’t — proved what pop complementarian-ism is all about. Ella Mai had some nice moments going into the audience, though it may be a little early for her to get this kind of spotlight. Mariah Carey did a decent rendition of her new single, which had six shirtless dancers popping out of what seemed to be the train of her dress… surprise! This new song, “With You,” is a light, finger-snappy tune in which Mariah Carey actually seems to be trying to keep her voice down. In the era of everybody trying too hard, that may not be a bad development.

And then, at the top of the three hours, there was Taylor, who seemed to have chosen “I Did Something Bad” specifically for the occasion, even though common sense tells us that the choice of number and her decision to endorse Democratic candidates in Tennessee were surely made weeks apart. It’s interesting, anyway, that she chose to wait to do any awards shows in her current album cycle till the AMAs, and then chose to do the non-single in which she sings about being a witch, positions herself as if at the stake, and then cries “Light me up!” — right at the time there are suddenly a lot of people out there ready to light her pyre. Even in possible coincidence, she has great timing.

Another likeable female performance, while we’re at it: Tracee Ellis Ross, in her second year as host, and probably far from the last one, given her good reviews and elevation to executive producer of the show. She does a masterful job of convincing you that she really believes whatever mediocre performance we just saw was the most amazing thing ever, and that’s a compliment. She’s impossibly infectious and utterly watchable even when caught in a slight fib.

And then there were the dudes. Mendes has a wonderful presence, of course, and won over the moms and dads by employing a real band, but his easy-breezy, R&B-inflected song seemed to be over almost as soon as it started. Twenty One Pilots made a rare stand for rock with the booming “Jumpsuit,” but they weren’t really in their element here. I liked the turtleneck chic of Khalid, who did a collaboration with Halsey where they seemed to be roommates and producer Benny Blanco guested, wordlessly, as The Guy Who Always Crashes on the Couch. Panic! at the Disco did a fine, faithful cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”… as seen every night on their 2018 tour, and as not seen at the Microsoft Theater, since it was on tape from a tour gig.

It ended with a tribute to Aretha Franklin that turned out to be a tribute to her “Amazing Grace” album (and maybe, inadvertently, the still unreleased movie that goes with it). Gladys Knight, Mary Mary, Ledisi and others sang praises to the Lord and the enthusiastic shots of the “congregation” didn’t seem as hypocritical as they would have been on a night where things got more vulgar than they did here. The show went over by five minutes, but ABC knew better than to roll credits over what a lot of the viewing audience might have considered the literally redeeming moment of the night.