The Billboard Music Awards telecast positioned itself this year as the official awards show of forgiveness for so-called “canceled” stars, with performance slots offered to both Morgan Wallen and Travis Scott. In the case of Wallen, that also extended to a major on-air award, as Wallen was called to the BBMAs’ podium Sunday night to accept a trophy for top country artist.
It wasn’t Wallen’s first win at an awards show since his career time-out in early 2021; he won album of the year at the fan-voted Academy of Country Music Awards in March. But the ACMs had followed the recent lead of other awards shows in denying Wallen a performance slot. So the Billboard Music Awards were first out of the gate, post-scandal, to have Wallen performing as well as accepting an award.
Wallen performed in the round and seated with his band members, singing a medley that began with his new single, “Don’t Think Jesus,” his first new music since the N-word scandal. Although Wallen didn’t co-write the song, it’s understood as being a response of sorts to the heat he’s taken since he was caught on camera saying the N-word to friends last year. The chorus of the song is a bit of a holy twist on Waylon Jennings’ famous song that says “I don’t think Hank done it this way.” In the new tune, Wallen sings, “If I was Him, I’d say, ‘To hell with you, ain’t no helping you’ / Find someone else to give Heaven to, I’m telling you / I’d shame me, I’d blame me / I’d make me pay for my mistakes / But I don’t think Jesus does it that way.”
The performance of “Don’t Think Jesus” led into the rather more secular (and more recognizable, to the mass audience) “Wasted on You,” lasting six and a half minutes altogether.
But if the new “Jesus” single has been read as a statement on Wallen’s part about his embracing forgiveness, his acceptance speech for top country artist — a data-driven award — did not allude to any past or present concerns.
“I got the best damn fans,” he declared, offering thanks “to my mama for being my date tonight — I wouldn’t be here without you” and “to my little boy for inspiring me every single day.”
Declaring Wallen redeemed was very much a conscious decision on the part of the show, per Diddy, the host and executive producer of the 2022 BBMAs. “So one of the things I’m doing directly is uncanceling the canceled,” Diddy said in an interview with Billboard. “That’s breaking news because people haven’t been about uncanceling. But canceling is a trend that needs to stop.”
Diddy said that Wallen’s racial slur needed to be taken in context, because he was using it in a friendly situation. “Travis went through a tragedy; Morgan [used the N-word] while talking to his boy,” Diddy said. “People make mistakes. Now we’re moving on with love and respect for everybody that was hurt or affected. It’s time to forgive.”
In another interview, Diddy said, “I looked at Morgan’s situation. I looked at Travis’ situation and I said, ‘Man, I got some power to do something about that because we can’t start that in the music industry or even in life period, so I’m here to forgive, to unify, to celebrate, and to have everybody be free.’ That’s my job.”
There has been a considerable split in the country music industry and fandom over whether Wallen has paid enough for his sins — or even needed to be blacklisted in the first place — or whether his comeback still feels premature after his only interview on the subject, with “Good Morning America,” had him saying that he still really hadn’t thought much about whether racism is an issue in country music.
Predictably, the immediate responses on social media ranged from “He’s a great god fearing man that is learning from his mistakes” to “Can’t believe y’all give him a platform.”
Wallen, who has spoken often of his affection for hip-hop, was presented his award by rapper Pusha T.
Wallen’s performance slot on the BBMAs would seem to augur well for him earning a similar slot on the next major country awards show, the CMA Awards in November, as the executive producer of that broadcast, Robert Deaton, co-exec-produced the Billboard Awards with Diddy.