It was the year of the woman at the American Music Awards — and not because they had any “step up” moments of their own to atone for, but because this is the late fall of 2019, in a season when men are absolutely not killin’ it in pop music, so who else are you going to put on a music awards telecast right now?
Well, you’re going to put on Ozzy Osbourne, of course. But mostly you’re going to program young mega-divas like Camila Cabello, who got three performance slots on the show, because her hair has grown too long and lustrous to fit in just one — and also because awards shows are going to keep putting her and Shawn Mendes on the air to do “Senorita” and pretend like they’re about to kiss until one of them finally trips and they accidentally do. Also: Taylor Swift, who managed to be memorable even without burning Scooter Braun in effigy. And Halsey, with her live television artpiece-of-the-month. And Lizzo and Billie Eilish, who are 100 percent that freshman ratings bait.
A rundown of the 2019 telecast’s performances, in rough order of greatest firepower to greatest filler:
Taylor Swift’s decade medley
Her megamix began with the superstar being surrounded by youngsters while singing her current feminist album cut “The Man,” because it is never too early to impress upon little girls what they can expect from the oppressive thumb of the patriarchy. (Seriously, it isn’t.) From there, it was a flashback to the more naïve days of “Love Story” — technically from the 2000s, not the period she was receiving her artist of the decade award for, but who’s counting — followed by the creeping cynicism of “I Knew You Were Trouble,” a song she could have dedicated to her former record company contract but did not. “Shake It Off” recreated the moment on last year’s tour when each night she would sing the song with opening acts Cabello and Charli XCX, now with Halsey in the third position. (Sorry, Charli.) This was all well and good, but the medley didn’t really transcend until she went to the piano for “Lover” and left the dancing to New York City Ballet legends Misty Copeland and Craig Hall, whose pas de deux was a beautiful love-me-do moment. If you bring out Copeland, you’ve already won the night, but even the audio-only version would have been a winner, with a string section augmenting her tenderer version of that title track.
Halsey’s acceptance speech
“I don’t even know what I’m saying,” Taylor Swift said during her artist of the year acceptance speech, “because literally the speech of the whole night goes to Halsey. Like, the winner of the whole evening for that speech. I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Mind you, Swift didn’t say that Halsey gave the most coherentspeech of the whole night, because she didn’t. But as she veered from cynicism about the whole affair (“When I was a kid, I used to believe this award was the ultimate validation… but the truth is, I am older now… Sometimes you grow up and the stuff you believed in starts to lose its magic”) and resigned acceptance (“I’m up here right now, and I am so thankful to the AMAs”), we all kind of knew what she meant: Awards are stupid! Awards are awesome! Would anyone argue?
When it comes to live TV appearances as conceptual dance performances, Halsey wants to be the new Pink, and on this night she was going to use literally half the other colors in the Sherwin Williams catalog to do so. She and her doppelganger did their own pas de deux above and below a simple table in an all-white setting before the paint cans came out and… there would be blood-red, blue, green and yellow smearing. This could hardly be more different than the unpretentiously acoustic, seated performance Halsey had just done on the CMA Awards a week and a half earlier with Lady Antebellum. This might have been a love-it-or-leave-it moment for a lot of viewers, but Halsey’s confidence, ability and, evidently, strong commitment to rehearsing made the paint-off pay off.
Shania Twain’s medley
The AMAs usually end with career-encapsulating medleys from veteran divas, and since Swift isn’t quite old enough to qualify as that yet (or because the show wasn’t about to save her for a 10:55 p.m. slot), this year that fell to Twain. How gangsta was it that she started her performance by sitting alone at center stage, picking a guitar and singing Post Malone’s “Rockstar”? It actually got a little less gangsta when it turned into an acoustic medley that included hits by Twenty-One Pilots, Drake and Swift; “Rockstar” alone woulda/shoulda have been sufficient. There was also the matter of keeping the covers on-key, but that actually made for a kind of sweet bookend to the show, since Selena Gomez started things off by being off herself. Twain figuratively kicked away the chair to go into a full-on preview of the hits Vegas visitors will hear in her upcoming residency. And at that point, with a giant staircase and coterie of male dancers for “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” and with Twain being all about the big hair and cleavage, her presence suddenly had more than a touch of Mae West to it. Which we would never say as anything but a high compliment.
The likely truth is that Lizzo is probably saving her biggest hit for the Grammys, but it didn’t hurt when the fill-in number was “Jerome,” the kiss-off number that allows her to go full drama queen. The staging wasn’t elaborate: Lizzo in pink chiffon, with audiences lighting up their smartphones, mirrored by the big screen behind her, as seen in a series of 360 degree camera sweeps. Her vocal reading was not what you’d call R&B singing at its subtlest, but it is a song that’s designed to make her former man into mincemeat by the end of the first verse and something even more diminished and chopped up before it’s over. So, mission accomplished and starpower delivered.
Billie Eilish’s “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”
So many of these awards shows performances already retreat to the use of pyro, in lieu of more clever ideas, that you might wish a song with “hell” in the title went for something less literal as a backdrop. But other than that, this was a pretty unassailable version of the performance of the song that Eilish effectively delivers on tour with her brother Finneas each night. When the big synth riff kicks in, it’s a kick to see the pigtailed Eilish come more alive with the sharp, convulsive moment to go with it. She got more still at the close, and as you wondered whether the director couldn’t cut to even one shot of Finneas’ climactic bass solo (because how often is there a climactic bass solo?), you realized that a trick was being played on you, as a viewer: Eilish was being seen in close-up on a crane moving ever farther away from the stage. Instead of dancing on the ceiling, as on “SNL,” she was slowly being delivered to the ceiling. Not the greatest moment Eilish will ever deliver on television, but a fun one.
Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart”
At a throwback moment like this, we are all Billy Porter. (But let’s hope that “dancing violinists” is not a job description that ever shows up on too many call sheets.)
Camila Cabello’s “Living Proof”
The senorita du jour delivered one of the more visually ambitious performances of the evening, with the young star working it inside a large box comprised of what seemed like particularly advanced video screens, surrounded by male and female dancers in lacy unisex-wear. A digital garden of Eden turned into — what else — flames, as the dancers paired off for some post-Adamite couplings that bordered on the orgiastic. The general costuming motif: angelic lingerie. The choreography was maybe a little horny for its own good, but the graphics were awfully impressive in their most flowery state, and Cabello drifting into her falsetto, as she does on this new number, is a thing of irresistibility.
Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ “Senorita”
Was this number announced for the AMAs almost at the last minute because they’d planned to do it in two months on the Grammys, only to have that effectively eliminated as a possibility because the nominating committees only gave it one nomination? That seems like a possibility — and having it appear on this earlier show instead reminded us of how recently we’d seen basically the same performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, all the way down to the couple’s nearly-but-not-really-kissing finale. (We’d swear they actually brushed noses as they pulled apart in this version, but would have to freeze-frame to prove it.) If it was a rerun, it was a rerun with chemistry. Now, for the love of God, you two, will you please snog.
Post Malone, Ozzy Osbourne and Travis Scott’s “Circles”/”Take What You Want”
Posty was alone at the beginning, a skull-jacketed wanderer alone in the woods, before he was joined by Scott and the seated prince of comic darkness and those woods caught on fire, digitally. Remember, kids: only you can prevent forest hellfires.
Christina Aguilera and A Great Big World’s “Fall on Me”
No pyro, real or digital, here. The combination of diva and piano man worked four years ago with “Say Something,” and their voices melded just as prettily in the new “Fall on Me,” a rare and welcome exercise in harmony in a beat-heavy show like this one. Aguilera’s hugely poufy sleeves made it seem like falling on her would make for a soft landing indeed.
Green Day’s “Father of All”/”Basket Case”
When artists do a new song on the show, producers like them to pair it with an old favorite whenever possible. That was especially necessary with Green Day, whose new “Father of All” is shorter than some commercials you’ll see on the air. As a late-period addition to their catalog, it’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s only rock ‘n’ roll — as in, the only rock on the show — and you’ll like it. Having little memory of how to stage a performance by a rock band on prime-time TV, since that’s something that hasn’t happened in about 50 years now, the director decided to go with that old ‘70s trick of cocking the cameras at an odd angle a lot of the time. Really, “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert” couldn’t have done it better.
Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me” and “Look at Her Now”
Swift, as it turned out, had nothing to say about Scooter Braun on the telecast after all. But it still felt like a show he had to be happy not to be attending, not just because of the Swift imbroglio, but because it started with “Lose You to Love Me,” a song that’s widely viewed as a slam against his flagship client, Justin Bieber. Gomez did a good job of delivering the ballad once she got past the very pitchy first verse — which the Twitterverse could not help but find ironic in a song that has her telling her ex that he “sang off-key on my chorus.” Just as she released that aggrieved number back-to-back with a more up-tempo addition to her comeback story, “Look at Her Now,” she also sang them back to back at the top of the AMAs, with a stark, solo, black-and-white look for “Lose” that went to color and a cast of dancers for “Look.” It would’ve been more effective if it didn’t feel like such a duplication of the twin music videos we’ve all just seen, more than an original prime-time moment.
The previous two years, Tracee Ellis Ross hosted the AMAs, and while that worked very effectively the first year, by 2018, the show and her role in it maybe suffered from an excess of personality. It was a good idea to change it up this year by bringing in Ciara, the kind of host who brings a lot of good will with her but isn’t going to try too hard or overshadow anything. Her “monolog” was a rendition of her new single, and there wasn’t much attempt at comedy in anything she had to say, or any of the mostly B-list presenters, for that matter. (Thank God.) If the host’s first job is not to do anything that invites hatred, Ciara was a total winner, but she did even better than that by getting in a game number of her own before getting out of the way.
Jonas Brothers’ “Only Human”
The JoBros had the only piped-in number of the night, from a Boston gig — and it actually seemed plausibly live, unlike most of these via-satellite appearances. Their reggae-fied single had charm and was well filmed, but there’s still nothing like being in the room.
Thomas Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her”
The cameras cut to Dan + Shay in the audience, who, despite the wild enthusiasm they gamely exhibited, had to be wondering why they weren’t on stage for the show’s token contemporary country number, given their heat at the moment. Nothing against Rhett, who’s one of the more likable and accomplished young country stars, but this isn’t even among his dozen best singles, and it feels like a million years since he premiered it on “SNL” in March. He’d probably rather have been performing a fresher song at this point, too, while it felt like the producers just gave up on figuring out any way to stage it other than turning the cameras on.
Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now”
“These balloons are incredible,” said Dan + Shay, taking the stage to accept an award right after Dua Lipa’s performance — by which they meant, these balloons are effing annoying and are blocking the camera’ view of our big moment. The metallic inflatables actually looked like some production assistant had been sent to make a prop run at the last minute and found nothing but Vons open. The singer herself was fine: the threat of a disco revival will never rouse any objections in these quarters. Still, you couldn’t help wondering where St. Vincent is when we need her.
Kesha’s “Raising Hell”/”Tik Tok”
Kesha has declared her eagerness to get back to her irreverent party mode, after getting more serious with her last album. That meant that “Raising Hell” made sense as a medley with her O.G. smash “Tik Tok.” It also meant that when she got to the latter tune, it came as a relief and a reminder of how superior it was, which is not really the goal of these things. The church motif amplified the confluence of spirituality and sexuality she was going for, but there was something tired in the irreverence of having all those dancers in costumes that combined choir wear with silky, sexy nighties — and it wasn’t the only time in the night we got the heaven and hell references combined, since Cabello was working a similar angels/devil angle in her solo showcase. Maybe the rest of her upcoming album has more truly divine appointments, but we’ll take our Jack in a shot glass, without the stained glass.