‘Billboard Music Awards’ Show Goes Into Business-as-Usual Mode, Minus the Seat-Fillers: TV Review

Doja Cat, John Legend, Demi Lovato and En Vogue had some of the more impressive performance moments in a telecast that may have been first among awards shows in treating the pandemic more as a passing distraction than reason for reinvention.

Host Kelly Clarkson performs at the Billboard Music Awards on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Not every pandemic-era awards show can reinvent the wheel, or try to, just for the sake of quarantine creativity points. And so “The Billboard Music Awards” occupied a unique space in the recent history of prime-time awards shows, by proceeding almost exactly as it probably would’ve if there had been a live audience in the Dolby Theatre. Apart from a few quick jokes or allusions to COVID-19 conditions, the only real sign that there was anything unusual about the 2020 BBMAs was the lack of any applause.

Well, except during Garth Brooks’ medley, which weirdly arrived with its own incongruous crowd roar, as the country superstar lifted his chin and pointed and played to the upper decks, as he always does, even getting the phantoms up there to sing along with “Friends in Low Places.” Had some of Brooks’ fan club snuck into the Dolby’s upper balcony just for his segment? Or was it just the ghosts of stadium shows past that he was seeing up there? None of this was a blight, by the way, on his and his band’s actual performance, because “That Summer” and “The Dance” are songs that just work, always, even if they seem to be being beamed in from an alternate universe.

Host Kelly Clarkson did occasionally acknowledge the one we’re living in, with a gag applause/laughter generator she flipped on amid the silence. (Maybe she was sitting on it in the green room during Brooks’ set.) But this was basically the first big awards show since March to take a business-as-usual approach to what has struck earlier producers as a dilemma. No faking a live audience, like the VMAs; no gimmick of multiple locations, a la the ACMs; certainly no treating the whole deal as a pandemic-themed comedy show, like the Emmys. The closest thing to an ongoing nod to darker aspects of the present situation was that most of the backup bands or dancers for the individual performers wore masks, suggesting a sort of caste system in which the hired help has a different set of protocols. (“Seven Feet from Stardom” apparently really means seven feet from masklessness, nowadays.)

Okay, maybe one other thing set this year’s Billboard Awards apart from what usually goes down: the sense that most reigning pop superstars would rather sit things out until they can be in front of an actual adoring throng again — excepting BTS, who are not in the business of being snobby about turning down TV opportunities. But Billie Eilish showed up to accept some trophies, but not to perform, and Harry Styles did neither, all likely joining Taylor Swift in holding out for Grammy season. The show had no appointment performance like Madonna’s last year or the J.Lo/DJ Khaled pairing the year before… which is just as well, given what duds those both turned out to be. (Having a saucy production number built around a song called “Dinero” now seems like something from 10 years ago, not two.) Wednesday’s show managed to arrive at some highlights, anyway, without enlisting a twerking cast of thousands.

The relative dearth of major marquee hitmakers allowed some artists to shine who might otherwise tend to get overshadowed, like Brandy, whose old-school chops and charisma no longer seem so easy to take for granted in the recalibration of the quarantine age. Things got even older-schooler with the closing performance by En Vogue of the 20-year-old “Free Your Mind,” a potent callback to an age when R&B and screaming rock guitars were not seen to be strange bedfellows. Can we just unilaterally make En Vogue stars again? Is there anything stopping us?

There is less that’s gushy to be said about Clarkson’s and Pentatonix’s okay opening revival of “Higher Love,” the Steve Winwood oldie that has somehow, against all odds, managed to become severely overexposed in the year 2020. It’s no coincidence that the show opened and closed with hits that are 30 years or more old; in the noted lack of a contemporary monoculture, TV producers can’t help but look back to the last times there was such a thing.

Did any person or song that is not middle-aged manage to break through, too? Why, yes: Doja Cat unexpectedly triumphed with a medley of “Juicy” and “Say So” that was positioned as a colorful homage to “Chicago,” gams propped up on wooden chairs included. They stopped short of paying tribute to Bob Fosse with the choreography, but Miss Cat (as Garth Brooks would refer to her) was impressive as a hoofer nonetheless.

On the opposite end of the high-concept scale, country star Luke Combs did a nice job with a simple, piano-accompanied version of recent single “Better Together.” Not usually one to go formal, Combs showed up in a pleasant dinner jacket, as if eager to position himself as the anti-Morgan Wallen — the newly married man whom Lorne Michaels could count on to shelter in place the weekend before, but still growly. (By the way: Has any song besides “Better Together” had as well-observed a line as “Your license in my wallet when we go out downtown” following as bad a line as “It’s a match made up in heaven, like good old boys and beer”?)

The “better” songs did not stop with Combs’. Alicia Keys’ rendering of “Love Looks Better” may mark one of the few times her actual performance has been overshadowed by her look, although there was nothing wrong with either… once you got used to how her severe bangs and bodysuit made her look more like the fifth member of Blackpink than the Keys we’ve known.

John Legend had the performance most tied to a moment (non-political edition), although not one he would have chosen to benefit from. Clarkson, his “Voice” co-judge, addressed him and wife Chrissy Teigen’s personal misfortune in saying “our hearts go out to you both in this very difficult time.” Legend dedicated his performance to Teigen before singing “Never Break,” a song about how “the world is dangerous” that had considerably more impact as a solo performance than it has in its more fully produced, gospelly renderings.

The most topical song – political division – obviously belonged to Demi Lovato, who’d just debuted “Commander in Chief” as a new single earlier in the day. Some have already noted that Lovato’s song reminds them too much of Pink’s “Dear Mr. President” for comfort, but while there are similarities, you have to give Lovato (and her co-writers) credit for being more confrontational in a moment where that might count. Yes, it’s weird that the network allowed a song bound to be this polarizing into a prime-time slot, then decided that her backdrop image of the word “VOTE” was beyond the pale. Weird, but inconsequential in the face of further proof that, rather than rockers or folkies, it is pop stars at the grindstone trying to create the protest song that will be this generation’s “Ohio.”

Embarrassments were few, although there was no reason to send Post Malone and Tyla Yaweh off-site for a field-trip walk around some kind of industrial compound that Clarkson kept teasing as an “undisclosed location in Los Angeles.” One of the properties of whatever substance is being mined at the site is apparently that it induces a lack of interest in even pretending to lip-synch. On the other hand, Posty was slightly more engaging as an award recipient, when he was extolling the magic of grapes (don’t worry, it was as much of a non sequitur as it sounds) or having a socially distanced Clarkson push a cart full of his nine trophies for the evening at him.

Sia’s new movie theme may have its heart in the right place, but in the end, there are some songs you can’t sell without eye contact; it was a song in need of twitch… not the social platform, but any actual sense that the performer was not immobilized behind that obscurant poodle wig.

The show being delayed seven months led to some awards whose presentations seemed so dated that it was if they were artifacts from another era. Lil Nas X won for “Old Town Road,” the feel-good hit of the spring of 2019. Billie Eilish’s album, which came out in March of last year, beat out Grande’s, which came out in February 2019. When Lil Nas X promised to meet us in “Nas-vember,” the best reminder we had that he didn’t mean a time warp where we’d convene in November 2019 was the show’s constant airing of a commercial for TikTok that featured the Idaho-longboarding cranberry-juice “Dreams” man, plus Mick Fleetwood emulating him. This is the ultimate weirdness of the world we now live in: that it takes a snippet of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” to shake us back into 2020.