Ariana Grande, who famously skipped the Grammys this year over disagreements about what form her production number would take, found an agreeable partner Wednesday night in the Billboard Music Awards — they let her mail in her characteristically dimly lit performance from a Vancouver concert. (It might’ve been via snail mail; that gig took place five nights earlier.) Everyone else on the NBC telecast was at the mercy of the live elements, and the results were mixed. Let’s just say Lauren Daigle made a run right back up the digital charts mid-telecast, and Madonna did not.
Wednesday’s show was a BBMAs that felt more tied in to the current pop moment than a lot of the previous editions have. There were some glaring absences in attendance. The show would have had twice the buzz with either Billie Eilish or Lil Nas X on board as performers. (The fact that they don’t have any material nominated yet shouldn’t be a factor; Ciara hasn’t been nominated for a Billboard Award since 2005, but she got a featured slot.) But Taylor Swift was making her return to performing on awards shows after a couple of years of laying off ‘em, and between having her, Grande, Halsey and BTS on board, it didn’t feel like sitting through hours’ worth of second-tierers — at least not for a show that’s upfront about ignoring juries of peers in favor of celebrating pure data.
There was one sure way to get a spontaneous ovation at the show: be within a few yards of BTS. When Ella Mai was at the dais accepting an award and gave a shout-out to her production team, they must’ve wondered why they earned such a huge roar, at least for the couple of seconds it took them to look up and remember that they were being shown on screen standing right behind the K-pop group. Meanwhile, the audience at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas seemed glad enough to see the Jonas Brothers back in action, but they were really glad to see Joe Jonas walk over to BTS in the front row for a quick handshake. Surely he knew paying honor to the new kings of pop would earn him some points among what might currently be the world’s most rabid social-media fan base.
At the risk of seeming to suck up to that very same fan base, BTS’ performance of “Boy With Luv” was one of the telecast’s highlights, largely for the sheer charm that came with Halsey gamely interjecting herself as the boy band’s first girl member. Choreography-focused or not, it was a “Grammy moment,” in a show that largely eschews the collaborations of Music’s Biggest Night.
Halsey earned an MVP award for also turning in a performance of her own “Without Me” that was as vividly melodramatic as the BTS hookup felt casual and cheerful. She grappled weirdly with a female dancer in a routine that felt like a domestic incident turned into a pas de deux, weirdly lit from below. It’s hard to say how good it actually was —with Halsey looking like she was going more for a Tony than a BBMA, it felt a little reminiscent of some of Pink’s more adventurously earthbound awards show performances — but she was Going For It without a net, which counts for a lot on a night with this much built-in predictability.
Not really going for it: Madonna. Her performance of “Medeillin” felt like she’d already registered that the single was a bust and was being forced to go through it as a contractual obligation. It became less meh if you distracted yourself by imagining it as a tribute to “The Avengers” — on top of her new signature eye patch, a la Nick Fury, the biggest gimmick of this production number was holographic images of the singer that all dissipated into dust. But the illusion was shattered by clunky moves and a parade of dancers who kept setting up and then disassembling table service as if they were bussing a restaurant that’s only open for 10 seconds a day. Colombian artist Maluma looked pleased to be there, at least, although maybe he’ll be as puzzled about what was happening as the rest of us when he watches the playback.
Swift opened the show with another MVP — Panic! at the Disco’s Brendan Urie, who also performed a separate number (“Hey Look Ma, I Made it”) with his won band — offering a live premiere to “ME!,” which couldn’t compete for impact with the debut of the video five days earlier. It felt a little like a live-action advertisement for that video, but Urie’s rapid-fire entrance on a harness for his duet part was executed perfectly, and having the umbrellas of Cherbourg meet the aerialists of Las Vegas Blvd. provided a fizzy lift the show was hard-pressed to maintain. Swift and Urie rode the fine line between high camp and “No, we really are this sincere about being this silly” and came out on the right side of it, although your mileage may vary.
“Doesn’t anyone just stand there and sing anymore?” readers like to comment about this time. If you’re into that sort of thing, there were some fine examples — most of all Christian singer Daigle, the Adele sound-alike whose almost equally tortured-sounding songs tend to have implicitly happier endings, as “You Say” certainly does. Host Kelly Clarkson provided one of those, too, with “Broken and Beautiful,” having expended her production-number energy at the top of the show with what has apparently become an annual medley of nominated hits, seguing from Cardi B’s “I Like It” to Dan + Shay’s “Tequila.” And speaking of D+S, anyone looking for something as old-fashioned as harmony singing got it in a teaming with Tori Kelley on “Speechless,” even if the ballad’s lyrics didn’t really lend themselves to a duet.
Then came the sight and sound of Mariah Carey actually singing — she can, you know — as she went through a hits medley as prelude to accepting the BBMAs’ icon award. “Without getting into the drama, the ups and downs of my career… We’ve all seen them. We all make mistakes. There’s been a few memes,” she said. How’s this for a headline: “Mariah Carey Kind of Acquits Herself”? Let the water coolers quaver over that one.
Other than Carey’s lively reminder of how much she’s entertained us for the right and wrong reasons, acceptance speeches were short and dull almost across the board. One other exception was Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds hurrying through a heartfelt paean to acceptance, and getting passionate about it. “There are still 34 states that have no laws banning conversion therapy,” Reynolds said. “This can change but it’s gonna take all of us talking to our stage legislatures”, he said. “We’ve seen that our LGBTQ youth have double the rate of depression and triple the rate of suicide after conversion therapy. This can change but it’s gonna take all of us,” added the singer. Florida Georgia Line presented Imagine Dragons with their award, so later on, when the country duo began using their own acceptance speech to “share one piece of truth tonight with you guys” and declare that “at the end of the day it’s all for nothing if you’re not using your platform for better,” it seemed as if they were about to take some sort of stand, too, but they stopped short, ending with the vague call to “be a light in your community.”
Non-Grammy music awards shows tend to be focusing on superstar diva medleys in recent years, a la Cher on the AMAs. This year, the Billboard Awards’ version of that was the comeback of Paula Abdul, doing a lot of lip-syncing and maybe a little tap-syncing, and providing a healthy dose of late ‘80s nostalgia. Perhaps too much of the routine was devoted to Abdul being literally tossed back and forth and dragged across the stage, and you might’ve gotten scared that the literally reanimated MC Skat Kat had just come out of the pet semetary and was going to rip all the other dancers’ heads off. But she’s such an amiable presence, and game enough about stepping into her old moves, that “Forever Your Girl” still sounded more like a promise than a threat.