The American Music Awards gave three trophies apiece to Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Dan + Shay in a show that proceeded along the lines of a typical annual AMAs telecast while acknowledging that the live audience for this pandemic edition consisted of a bare handful of masked, cheering fans in the Microsoft Theater’s balcony.
Viewers who prefer their awards telecasts politics-free finally had a 2020 show to pick not a single bone with. Host Taraji P. Henson set the tone in her introductory remarks, saying that “we are one country. We need to heal. We need to love each other a little more, and that’s what tonight is about.” Recent or current events did not rear their head after that, aside from a sniggering vote-counting gag or occasional fleeting allusions to the COVID-19 crisis, like Doja Cat’s parting admonition in an acceptance speech to “stay safe.”
The only direct mention of the nation’s rapidly growing health crisis came when Henson referred to “our small but mighty COVID-free audience,” referring to a smattering of fans in the front rows of the Microsoft’s balcony, all wearing masks and scattered in small batches of what were said to be pre-tested family groupings. The cutaways to these fans were somewhat at odds with the telecast’s audio, which sounded as if the theater were filled with its usual thousands of participants.
The closest thing to drama came with Swift’s climactic appearance, winning for favorite artist, a particular surprise since viewers might have figured they wouldn’t be seeing her — she did not perform and the other two awards she won were not presented on-camera. Swift injected a hint of intrigue by saying she was too busy re-recording her old catalog to attend the show, an unmistakably pointed aside coming less than a week after the superstar confirmed that her masters had again been sold against her wishes.
Swift, The Weeknd and Dan + Shay were not the only multiple winners. Picking up two apiece in the fan-voted honors were BTS, Doja Cat, Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber (one of those two shared with Dan + Shay). Singular winners: Harry Styles (who, surprisingly, aced out both Swift and The Weeknd for favorite pop/rock album), Dua Lipa, Kane Brown, Maren Morris, Blake Shelton, Juice WRLD, Roddy Ricch, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Becky G, Karol G, Twenty One Pilots, the Jonas Brothers, Lauren Daigle and Lady Gaga.
Although the atmosphere was carefree on the telecast, it was less so behind the scenes. “It was difficult, but we made it work. It was constant testing,” said Bebe Rexha, speaking to reporters in a virtual press room after performing a duet with Doja Cat. “You would go into the rehearsal space and every 45 minutes it had to be aired out for 15 minutes and cleaned… I was tested twice a day for this whole week because I just shot a movie recently. It’s been a very intense week with a lot of safety precautions but it’s worth it.”
Although many of the performances were filmed on the Microsoft stage, either pre-taped or live, the two biggest highlights of the show were heavily choreographed, one-take numbers filed from a safe social distance. The Weeknd strolled across an L.A. bridge ( described as being a block away from the host theater, but appearing to be the new Sixth Street Viaduct, still under construction several miles away) for a fireworks-fueled performance that had carefully executed pyrotechnics going off in traffic lanes as well as high above in a 360-degree pan. The other, also executed without any cuts, came in from England, with a smiling Dua Lipa joined by eight dancers in a facsimile of the Milky Way mentioned in the lyrics of “Levitating.”
The Weeknd appeared with his head nearly entirely covered in bandages not just for that number but for three separate acceptance speeches, as if compensating for the highly mainstream qualities of his most recent music with an even deeper dive into visual/character performance art. There was nothing artsy about his turns at the dais, though, as he kept his talks short, if not almost shy, particularly offering thanks to Prince, because “he’s the reason I get to constantly challenge this genre of R&B.”
Although Kenny G’s collaboration with The Weekend was heavily anticipated, he appeared only in the opening moments of the reigning star’s one-shot video, preceded by host Henson saying, “That sex is responsible for a lot of babies,” laughing over her “sex”/”sax” stumble.
Henson gave her all despite being saddled with some questionable concepts and writing, like an opening dance medley that inserted her into several choreographed situations before she quit the bit as twerking took over (“This is family TV… Tell that dancer to teach me the twerk after the show” was the punchline), or a side trip into sketch comedy with Megan Thee Stallion in which the host feigned having kidnapped the show’s producers to take over Megan’s career (“Women building up women by kidnapping people” being the kicker for that one).
While it wasn’t always clear where the performances were taking place, due to not all of the songs having cutaways to what small audience there was, it was not long in doubt where Shawn Mendes was doing his “Wonderful” performance. The number started on a living-room set, which was eventually revealed to have been constructed at the rear of the Microsoft Theater’s floor, as he exited out a side door and run up the aisle to join his band on stage. There was less ingenuity to Mendes’ earlier appearance on the show, an opening duet with Justin Bieber, both singing about being put on a pedestal from atop, yes, a large pedestal.
Other performances included Machine Gun Kelly, introduced by surprisingly indifferent-seeming significant other Megan Fox; Billie Eilish, doing a live premiere of her new single on a darkroom-red set, with a surprise drop-off; Bell Bid DeVoe and Nelly, on hand for nostalgic purposes; recently most-streamed act 24kGoldn, balancing out that nostalgia with a song that the bulk of network viewers would still not have heard; Lewis Capaldi, offering what Henson called “an ugly cry” with the somber “Before You Go”; Katy Perry and Darius Rucker quietly dueting on “Only Love,” a humanistic anthem from her recent record that the host described as being about “if you had one day left to live”; Jennifer Lopez and Maluma, ensuring the show didn’t descend too far into pathos with stripes strategically projected onto curves; further curviness squared times a hundred with Megan Thee Stallion’s new “Body”; and Dan + Shay singing current hit “I Should Probably Go to Bed,” a surprisingly adventurous choice to program at 9:45 p.m. in an awards show.
Although it might sound dangerous to keep an ARMY waiting for hours, the AMAs saved the most rabidly anticipated dial-in for last, as BTS followed Swift getting the last award of the night in a performance filmed at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium. The last remaining fireworks in the world not already requisitioned by The Weeknd were set off to approximate “Dynamite,” and to celebrate the three-day-old “Life Goes On,” as the hardest working band in show business ended the night a world away from the host venue with an amazing spectacle delivered to an audience made up of thin air — a 2020 version of a “BE”-in, for sure.
Although the show could not be accused of undue topicality, Lil Baby may have gotten to the heart of 2020 by staging his song, “Emotionally Scarred,” as something sung to a therapist, and ending it with an on-screen message: “Protect Your Mental Health.” No one dared proffer a message about physical self-protection at the AMAs, but at least Lil Baby was out there reminding viewers it was okay to put on their emotional masks.
Almost all of those seen on the telecast will have barely a breath to spare before they get back to anticipating who will turn up for notice in the Grammy nominations coming Tuesday morning. “I’ll be just as excited to perform — like, that’s my number one,” said Doja Cat, a leading contender for new artist, there as here, in the AMA press room. “But if we win something that will be crazy.” Her expectations are modest, though: “It being 2020, I expect the worst every day.”
(Additional reporting by Ellise Shafer.)
The complete American Music Awards 2020 winners list:
Artist of the year
- Taylor Swift
New artist of the year
- Doja Cat
Collaboration of the year
- Dan + Shay featuring Justin Bieber, “10,000 Hours”