The iHeartRadio Music Awards show is many people’s favorite awards show of the year, by virtue of lasting only two hours. If it’s not music’s biggest night, it’s music’s shortest, which counts for a lot. But Thursday night’s telecast, broadcast live on Fox from L.A.’s Microsoft Theater, had even more going for it than that— like Kacey Musgraves hiring Chris Martin as her pianist, Alicia Keys employing 8-year-old son Egypt as her pianist, and Garth Brooks harmonizing with a superfan in high places, actor Chris Pratt.
One of the big draws of the night, Taylor Swift, wasn’t performing. But Swift has been a rare enough attendee at awards shows in recent years — after having famously been every cameraman’s favorite reaction shot — that landing the pop superstar to accept her award for tour of the year was a bit of a coup for the iHearts.
“I think one of the most wonderful things about the way this whole tour turned out,” said Swift, “is that for the entire six months leading up to the tour, every headline I read about it was that this is going to be a massive failure — this is going to be a flop tour. Which really did wonders for my self-esteem… to hear people say that I was going to be playing to nearly empty stadiums.” It was mentioned more than once that her “Reputation” stadium tour was actually the highest grossing U.S tour ever, with Swift thanking fans who came out “in perfect weather or if you came to one of our many rainy shows that we had. I want to say thank you if you just watched the show on Netflix on your couch in your home.”
And in wrapping up her speech, there was the tease that a new single may not be just an impatient-fan hypothetical, although it sounds like it might be coming some time between sooner and later: “I just want to let you know that were there is new music, you will be the first to know,” Swift promised.
Ariana Grande was not on hand to accept her award for artist of the year; presenter Pharrell Williams explained that his production client was tied up preparing for the launch of her tour two nights hence. But she did provide a short taped performance of her next single, “Needy,” seated in what looked like it might be the tour’s rehearsal space, accompanied by a string quartet, two keyboardists, a click track and no one on the nearby drum kit. She also sent in a quickie acceptance speech in which she vowed, “I’m going to sleep with this tonight.” (But will she say “Thank u, next” to the trophy when the Billboard Awards come up in May?)
Also not on hand but eliciting screams anyway with their filmed speeches were BTS, who won for fan army of the year, and Cardi B, hip-hop winner of the year, who flicked the trophy with her tongue.
Musgraves was enjoying a moment where, maybe for the first time ever on an awards show, she was the hottest, most au currant live performer of the night, thanks to having just won the top album of the year prize at the Grammys just a little over a month prior. As she did on that other telecast, Musgraves performed her latest single, “Rainbow,” but this time with a bit more blatant set design — she sat perched atop a giant rainbow — and with a surprise celebrity accompanist in the form of Coldplay’s frontman.
Musgraves’ introduction declared that “Rainbow” is “getting heavy airplay on iHeart stations everywhere,” which might still count as prophecy more than something already fulfilled for the just-released single. But the tune hasactually been making headway against country radio’s female drought since being sent to radio simultaneous with her Grammys triumph. In a backstage interview for the telecast, after being reminded that the “Golden Hour” is coming up on its first anniversary, Musgraves said, “It hasbeen out there for a while, but having radio jump on board means the world to me.”
Swift was sporting an unusual splash of pink hair, but Halsey was rocking the pink in a much bigger way as she opened the show with Yungblud joining her on guitar and Travis Barker popping up mid-performance on a literally rising drum riser. Later, she returned to accept an award that is probably never going to show up as a category at the Grammys, the L’Oreal Paris Fangirls Award.
“I never really win awards like this, so now I understand why people get emotional when they do,” said Halsey. “The word fangirl for a long time has been used in a very derogatory sense. If a young girl likes something, that makes it in the rest of the world stupid, or invalid… It is very much the opposite, actually… In a time when it is so necessary to have feeling and have empathy, when I see a fangirl or fanboy or fan-anything, I see a person who is feeling, who is capable of affecting change.”
Alicia Keys pulled off the sweetest moment of the night by bringing out Egypt to join her on dual piano, and eventually take over entirely, as an example of how to “Raise a Man,” a.k.a. the new single she was performing (along with a crowd-pleasing snippet of “You Don’t Know My Name”). In accepting the innovator award, she also gave a shout-out to her 4-year-old son, Genesis, who was sitting a couple of seats down from Swift in the audience, saying “I think (he) is maybe trying to take Taylor out later tonight. He’s working on it. I’m not sure how it’s gonna go, but it looks pretty good right now.”
For all the celebration of women that nearly dominated the night, there was a major bro-love moment when Pratt introduced Brooks, who was receiving an artist of the decade award. “The dude had the soundtrack to my life,” said Pratt. “I bought every one of his albums and had them all memorized by the next day.” He didn’t quite get a chance to prove how deep his lyrical knowledge goes, because when Brooks pulled him back out to sing on his medley’s closer, it was on “Friends in Low Places,” a song known to nearly every country and non-country fan on the planet. The actor looked like he’d won the lottery nonetheless as he shouted “OASIS” louder than any karaoke singer ever.
John Legend looked to be more going after the 2019 zeitgeist with his performance of a socially conscious new single, “Preach,” accompanied by a dozen choir-member/dancers. The Backstreet Boys brought the nostalgia back with a Microsoft-sized sing-along of “I Want It That Way.”
T-Pain ostensibly hosted the show, although he was only seen on three increasingly brief occasions, first for a quick monologue in which he joked about being much shorter than Swift and having “head-butted your boob,” then a mid-point excerpt of a new single, and finally for a quick goodbye. One reason the show lasted just two hours was the ability to dispense with the reading of nominees. “We’re not gonna be opening envelopes and having drum rolls,” he declared at the outset. “All we do is win.” Needless to say, Price-Waterhouse were not called out.
Full Winners List:
Song of the Year: “The Middle” – Zedd, Maren Morris, Grey
Artist of the Year: Ariana Grande
Female Artist of the Year: Ariana Grande
Male Artist of the Year: Drake
Best Duo/Group of the Year: 5 Seconds Of Summer
Best Collaboration: “Finesse (Remix)” – Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B
Pop Album of the Year: Sweetener – Ariana Grande
Best New Pop Artist: Marshmello
Alternative Rock Song of the Year: “High Hopes” – Panic! At the Disco
Alternative Rock Artist of the Year: Imagine Dragons
Alternative Rock Album of the Year: Pray for the Wicked – Panic! At The Disco
Best New Rock/Alternative Rock Artist: lovelytheband
Rock Song of the Year: “Safari Song” – Greta Van Fleet
Rock Artist of the Year: Three Days Grace
Rock Album of the Year: Trench – twenty one pilots
Country Song of the Year: “Meant To Be” – Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line
Country Artist of the Year: Luke Combs
Country Album of the Year: Rearview Town – Jason Aldean
Best New Country Artist: Jordan Davis
Dance Song of the Year: “The Middle” – Zedd, Maren Morris, Grey
Dance Artist of the Year: Marshmello
Dance Album of the Year: Sick Boy – The Chainsmokers
Hip-Hop Song of the Year: “God’s Plan” – Drake