In her opening remarks, American Music Awards host Tracee Ellis Ross promised a telecast that would focus on “women who take up space”— and did they ever on the 2017 edition of the show, which was agreeably gynocentric from the opening duet by Pink and Kelly Clarkson to the closing tribute to Ross’ mother, Diana. “There’s gonna be some men in there, too,” the “Black-ish” star added, almost apologetically; indeed there were, and forgive us if we have to consult our notes to recall any of them.
The show will be best remembered not for Pink’s opening appearance, but from her second two hours in, when she performed sideways while rappelling up and down the exterior of the 21-floor JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, along with a half-dozen dancer/danglers (the stunt was taped on Friday). Most of the rules went out the plexiglas window on this one, including “Pink should never do another aerial stunt again” (sure, we’ll eat those words). It wasn’t even all about guts and glory. The horizontal choreography of “Beautiful Trauma” was actually beautiful… as well as slightly traumatic, for acrophobic home viewers.
Pink already had some bragging rights from her opening number with Clarkson, a cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” that gave viewers a pair of singers who are used to overpowering audiences but are smart enough to relax and not try to clobber one another as harmonizers. For a few sweet minutes, it was “Everybody Gels.”
The show is not shy about being hyperbolic in the writing, as when a 25th anniversary salute to “The Bodyguard” by Christina Aguilera was billed as “destined to become one of the American Music Awards’ most iconic performances.” Can a TV medley be pre-iconic? Yet, regardless of whether the performance goes down as one of the AMAs’ all-timers, Aguilera delivered. Her first follow-through came in her nearly unrecognizable appearance, which had her Draco-Malfoy-with-a-mullet slicked-back hair framing a more au naturel look. The vocals were equally untreated, and if Aguilera stretches out the melisma even more than Whitney Houston did — who knew “way” is a 17-syllable word? — you could be glad “I’m Every Woman” was assigned to someone who really does have the combined lungpower of, like, every woman.
Alessia Cara came off as a worthy diva-in-training with a framing of “Stay” that ditched everything but Zedd on piano and an eight-piece string section. Lady Gaga beamed in from an arena show in Washington, D.C. to sing her recent one-off single “The Cure,” a song stylistically ordinary enough that it sounds like it could’ve been recorded by any of today’s young stars, but which in visual performance had a verve that is singularly hers. Clarkson came back to blend “Miss Independent” with her new “Love So Soft,” and if the hammy horn section didn’t sound very live, she sure was.
The pleasant surprise of just how many of the show’s vocals were live is worth noting. The AMAs, along with MTV’s VMAs, have traditionally been just fine with artists wanting to mime, in contrast to the “F— it, we’ll do it live” Grammys. But for whatever reason, this year’s telecast was filled with real singing… maybe because it was filled with real singers. Let’s hope that part isn’t just aberrational.
Of course, that meant that the acts that did email their vocals in stood out more than in past years. When it came to the K-pop boy band BTS, it was hard to know whether to hold it against the lads or just laugh, but it was clear the members were enlisted for their ability to execute precise choreography, not for any skill at making you believe they’re the same guys you’re hearing on the audio track. Anyway, the cutaways to tearful BTS-mania among well-planted audience members were endearing.
Also not making much effort to convincingly mime was Selena Gomez, although in her case, she was caught up in a strange, conceptual artpiece, the purpose of which was not 100 percent clear by the end of her performance. For her new song, “Wolves,” she not only put on a sexy slip dress but a fair amount of stage blood, posing in front of a crashed car from which she had apparently emerged as an accident victim, with an impact wound on her forehead and badly scraped hands and knees. The message, maybe, is that Gomez is emerging as a survivor from some rough stuff. But graphically simulating the effects of a concussion may still go down as one of the weirder awards-show ideas since the pre-Tony Bennett, performance-art heyday of Gaga.
When women had to share the stage with guys, the results weren’t always memorable. Skylar Grey sang and played piano while Macklemore rapped on “Glorious,” but it was clear the real star of the bit was his excellent peach-colored suit. On the other hand, Hailee Steinfeld’s silver mini-dress and thigh-high boots definitely outclassed Florida Georgia Line’s pale fashion on “Let Me Go,” which seemed to take place on the set of two-thirds of the set of “Hollywood Squares.”
Curiously, Florida Georgia Line were the only country act on the show. Maybe that’s because ABC wanted to save all their country guns for last week’s CMA Awards telecast or their upcoming “CMA Country Christmas” show… and because their current, extremely non-country duets with Steinfeld or Bebe Rexha would have been controversial fits on a CMA show. Still, when Keith Urban accepted three AMAs at once, it seemed odd the network hadn’t found a way to squeeze him in here.
Another curious point of note: a lot of the songs being performed on the show aren’t actually hits. Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” was actually the exception, as a song that’s made the top 10, something that the tunes by Macklemore, Gaga, Clarkson, Steinfeld, BTS, Nick Jonas, and some others haven’t yet achieved. There may be a disconnect between what passes for star power on TV and what tests well with young radio listeners who care less than ever about whether a big name is attached.
One song that did peak in the top 10 this month, oddly enough, is “Feel It Still,” from the Portland group Portugal the Man — a song that got airplay on pubic radio as well as top 40 radio. “No computers up here, just live musicians,” read an inscription on the big screens before the group took the stage with horns and strings to play something that seems to owe as much to the Claudine Longet era as DJ Khaled’s or Khalid’s. Putting these formerly faceless hitmakers on the show was a smart move on the producers’ part, adding a bit of the mystique of the new amid the familiar names.
Portugal the Man represented something roughly akin to rock on the show, along with Imagine Dragons — which is about twice as much rock as ever shows up on the VMAs anymore. The most unintentionally funny moment of the show came when Kevin O’Leary, of “Shark Tank,” was made to proclaim that “alternative rock is one of the most important genres of music today.” Okay, that’s not just hyperbole; in 2017, sadly, that kinda counts as just lying.
But you came to this show, or at least stayed with it, for the promised powerful women — including Miss Ross Jr., who turned out to be the most natural and personable host the AMAs have had in ages. The “Black-ish” star was announced with less than a week to spare, so it may have been a late-arriving eureka moment, but she would have been a good pick even if the climactic tribute to her mother hadn’t precipitated it. As for Diana, she did pretty well, too, putting a sweet cap on a show that ultimately made America’s love affair with divas feel like a love Supreme.
But what was up with that distractingly shaped runway, which couldn’t have looked any more phallic if it’d been designed by the Navy airmen who got grounded last week for drawing a dirty picture in the sky? We’d like to hope it was just an accident, not production designers silently protesting the near-complete female dominance of the show.