TV Review: Billboard Music Awards Sober Up Over Gun Violence, Suicide, #MeToo

DJ Khaled and Jennifer Lopez's "Dinero" felt a bit tone-deaf on a show that had Shawn Mendes, Khalid and Kelly Clarkson nodding to recent tragedies and activism.

DJ Khaled ad Khalid arrive at the Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, in Las Vegas2018 Billboard Music Awards - Arrivals, Las Vegas, USA - 20 May 2018
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Just in case anyone was still prone at this late stage to confusing Khalid with DJ Khaled, the 2018 Billboard Music Awards telecast came along to make sure that never, ever happens again — directly juxtaposing performances by the two stars that alternately represented pop’s noblest and most ignoble impulses.

Deep into a show that had already acknowledged Friday’s mass killings in Texas, Khalid and Shawn Mendes were joined on the latter’s new song, “Youth,” by the show choir from Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Texas. Khalid wore a shirt bearing the legend “Protect Our Guns,” with the last word crossed out and replaced by “Children,” making explicit a sentiment that had been hinted at by host Kelly Clarkson at the top of the show. “This soul of mine will never break / As long as I wake up today / You can’t take my youth away,” sang Mendes, who never could have guessed when the segment was planned that by Sunday night the Parkland kids would already seem like elder statesmen, ready to counsel the survivors of an even more recent massacre.

This number was immediately preceded in the lineup by DJ Khaled joining Jennifer Lopez for “Dinero,” a tribute to greed and superficiality that seems especially tone-deaf for the moment, but would have had you searching for some kind of saving irony even under the most carefree of circumstances. Lopez danced brilliantly. Indeed, she works hard for the money. But watching her counterpart throw stacks of fake cash into the crowd while yelling “Video coming soon!” was such a gag-reflex-inducer that it maybe took longer than it might’ve to unclench our tear ducts when the other Khal(i/e)d came on to appeal to our better angels a few minutes later.

It was a happy/sad serendipity that Mendes’ “Youth” had already been slotted for the show, since the ephemerality-celebrating Billboard show is less likely than, say, the Grammys to have a veteran of gravitas on hand to address a sober national moment. But first-time host Clarkson did a pretty good job of it, too, in her own tearful and apparently unrehearsed way, at the beginning of the show. It wasn’t altogether clear whether she was using her introductory speech to actually advocate for gun control; her call for “action” was vague enough, either by network design or her own impromptu nervousness, that Ollie North could just as easily have applauded it as David Hogg. But the inference was clear enough that we should probably have a moment of silence for all the trolling Clarkson will take for saying, “I’m so sick of moments of silence.”

The show felt unusually topical in other moments, too. The Chainsmokers spoke about how the late Avicii “meant so much to us and everyone in the EDM community,” with co-presenter Halsey adding that the suicide of the genre’s longtime hero was “a reminder to all of us to be there and support and love all of our friends and family members who may be struggling with mental health issues.” They were presenting an award to Luis Fonsi, who dedicated his win for “Despacito” to “all my Latino brothers, all the immigrants, all the Dreamers out there, all of those who get made fun of when you speak with an accent (by) all of those who say, ‘Hey, speak English.” Later, Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato spoke to the #MeToo moment with a new song warning girls not to pay heed to men who ask them to “shut your mouth (and) stick your ass out for me.”

Women dominated the show, starting with Clarkson, who had a sassy, feminist moment of her own with the song “Whole Lotta Woman.” She proved a savvy choice of host for a show that’s suffered from a run of bad ones (last year’s forgettable teaming of Ludacris and Vanessa Hudgens being neither the best or worst in the show’s on-and-off 18-year history). She promised to forego comedy, and stuck to that vow, instead doing a medley of some of the bigger hits of the past year, from fellow Texan Maren Morris’ “My Church” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” to “Look What You Made Me Do” (with Taylor Swift doing a quick comic turn of her own in the front row, briefly pretending to be too nonchalant to get into the tune).

Unfortunately, Clarkson’s snippet of the Morris song was the last time any country music was heard all night. The notable absence of any smashes from that genre on the show has to be a strategic decision, not an amnesiac one — one of the executive producers of the BBMAs, Robert Deaton, is responsible for the CMAs, after all (Clarkson, too, was listed as am EP) — but it still registers as strange in a three-hour show that exists to reward popularity, of which country has a little. (Maybe the 3,000 or so “Y’alls” Clarkson uttered over the course of the telecast were there to make country fans forget their music was going unrepresented.)

Morris did show up on the show, of course — not to sing one of her own songs, but her featured lead vocal on “The Middle,” the Zedd number that doesn’t have a lot of competition at this point for the best pop smash of 2018. With a hook that glorious, no staging is needed, and none was offered, really, other than the flow of nearly stage-obscuring confetti that seemed to occur at the end of nearly every performance. (The chyron touting the performance also misspelled Morris’ first name.)

“Real” singers a la Morris were at an unusual premium on the show; never, surely, has there been a Billboard Awards telecast with so few lip-synched performances. (Which is to say, maybe even less than half.) At the top of the show, the full diva tone was set by Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” which couldn’t have been better placed as a transition out of Clarkson’s wet cheeks… and which, of course, has its own implicit basis in mass gun violence, having been at least partly prompted by the Manchester Arena bombing of last year. The show’s producers couldn’t have had a better glistening-into-gladness transition if they’d written Grande’s song themselves.

Message songs would return, in a big way, with some equally big voices. Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato debuted their new duet, “Fall in Line,” a call to strength for young women that’s a little amorphous in the lyrical details but stirring nonetheless. How can it not be, with Aguilera’s and Lovato’s voices so perfectly matched; together, they’d sell you just about anything, so thank God they were selling the resilience of the sisterhood, versus T-Mobile or Pepsi or any of the night’s other over-invoked sponsors. “I’m gonna pay for this / They’re gonna burn me at the stake / But I got a fire in my veins,” the ebony- and ivory-haired singers sang in their matching vinyl trenchcoats, surrounded by black-booted soldiers apparently taking a sinister view of #ThemToo.

Camila Cabello could have easily made for an ideal show-closer if they’d looked for a massive way to produce the most ubiquitous pop song of the last 12 months, “Havana.” As it was, that was the second half of a medley that began with her newly released joint single with Pharrell, “Sangria Wine.” That song was recorded for her smash album but withheld till a couple of days ago, and it sort of feels like America isn’t quite sure what to think of the tune yet — it’s perfectly fine, but not as fine as all the singles from the Cabello that are still on hold and stacked up like the proverbial planes over LaGuardia. In any case, Pharrell had one of the better fashion statements of the night, wearing shorts to what looked like a beach picnic on the imagined red sands of Mars… and Cabello, who’s gone from neophyte to nascent potential superstar in no time,  thrived even more when Williams ghosted the party.

Were there men on hand? Sure, although the ones that stuck out most, if only by applause level, were the boys-to-men that are BTS. “Are there any BTS fans here?” Clarkson asked in her introductory remarks, and from the response, it appeared that there were only BTS fans inside the MGM Grand Arena — never mind that the seven-member Korean ensemble still hasn’t had a major single in America. “Fake Love,” which they debuted, could change that… or might not, and they’ll probably still win the Social Artist of the Year award without radio ever getting it anyway.

U.S.-bred sweetheart males had a good presence, too. John Legend brought four boys on stage as well as four grown male dancers for a spirited song about a girl you could take home to mama and even wed. Family values, on a telecast that last year opened with 10 minutes of Nicki Minaj getting her raunch on? Go figure.

Mendes won hearts with his other performance of the night, new single “In My Blood,” a spirited refutation of loneliness and depression, performed semi-acoustically amid a field of glowing white roses. Again, subliminally, at least, Mendes’ solo turn fit in nicely with the sober, topical underpinnings of the evening, almost as much as his more overt duet with Khalid.

In all, it was about a 100 percent more solid show than last year’s BBMAs… solid enough, actually, that it didn’t even need nostalgic visits from veteran artists to save it, the way the telecast did last year, when a performance and especially speech by Icon Award honoree Cher was one of the few saving graces. Producers probably had that kind of safety net in mind when they not only booked Janet Jackson for the Icon Award presentation and preceding performance, but also a show-ending turn by fellow late ‘80s/early ‘90s wonder women Salt-N-Pepa and, on “What a Man,” En Vogue. Neither “heritage” performance was a failure, but Jackson, in particular, wound up her two-song medley right around the time you thought she might be just getting started. It was an appearance that left fans wanting more… much more… which, of course, is what her summer tour is for.

But… let’s talk about sex! And we don’t mean the Salt-N-Pepa song. Never, probably, has there been less pelvic thrusting on a BBMAs telecast — we may truly be entering a post-twerk age, or maybe the MTV Awards will set us straight in three months. It was up to Khalid and Normani, anyway, to bring some heat and win the unofficial Get a Room You Two Award for the night. One of the best moments came when she scrunched up the collar of his shirt. When you mess with wardrobe, that’s some convincing lust.