Los Angeles County shattered its daily Covid-19 case record last week, but preparations for a live broadcast of the 2020 American Music Awards forged ahead at the Microsoft Theater. The event, which was broadcast by ABC on Sunday night, was the latest in a handful of music awards shows that have mounted in-person, indoor productions in the last two weeks, including the Country Music Association Awards (which made little mention of the pandemic) and the Latin Grammys (which fully acknowledged it).
The AMAs chose the Latin Grammys route: Dancers and musicians who weren’t singing wore masks, winners collected their trophies from a table instead of receiving them from presenters, and the limited audience was relegated to the theater’s upper balcony (while cardboard cutouts of Beyoncé and Jay-Z got a front-row view). But despite all the visible reminders of the pandemic, winners and presenters had little to say about it or other hot-button issues. The evening’s most pointed remark was about as sharp as a butter knife: The host Taraji P. Henson chided President Trump by saying, “We ain’t doing no recount,” in reference to the votes for artist of the year.
While the ceremony leaned toward the tame, a handful of artists managed to make an impression. Here are five of the night’s most notable moments.
Billie Eilish taunted the camera.
She may be destined to play arenas for the rest of her career, but Billie Eilish’s music tends to feel more claustrophobic than expansive. Performing her new single, “Therefore I Am,” Eilish packed her live-wire energy inside the narrow corridors of a blank but colorfully illuminated set evocative of a James Turrell installation. Her brother and collaborator Finneas was on hand, dutifully masked and playing bass.
The video for “Therefore I Am” — in which Eilish gallivants around an abandoned shopping mall, digging her claws into assorted snacks — reeks of mischief. She brought a similar vibe to the AMAs, saucily taunting the camera following her around the stage and demonstrating the earned confidence of someone whose rule-bending ways have been rewarded. And after two subdued awards show performances — at the Grammys and the Oscars — it was a pleasure to see her crank up the energy.
Taylor Swift doesn’t love the drama, it loves her.
In the run-up to last year’s AMAs, Taylor Swift’s performance celebrating her artist of the decade honor was clouded by the question of whether she’d be allowed to play the hits that earned her that title. According to Swift, Scooter Braun, the manager who had just acquired the master recordings of her first six albums, was trying to block her from doing so. In the end, Swift performed the songs, but the drama has endured, returning to the headlines last week as Braun sold her catalog to the investment firm Shamrock Capital.
Accepting this year’s award for artist of the year in a prerecorded clip, Swift made a point of referencing the ongoing saga. “The reason I’m not there tonight is I’m actually rerecording all of my old music in the studio where we originally recorded it,” she said, gesturing to her surroundings, seemingly a vocal booth with a zodiac wall hanging.
Dua Lipa levitated, actually.
In one of a handful of prerecorded segments that supplemented the live broadcast, Dua Lipa joined the party from the Royal Albert Hall in London. Typically more comfortable strutting and smoldering than outright dancing, she brought her A game for a performance of “Levitating,” attempting more rigorous choreography with assistance from a phalanx of leotard-clad backup dancers. When the camera panned away from Lipa in the bridge, it looked to be the setup for a wardrobe change. Instead, it led into the evening’s most theatrical moment: Lipa, now harnessed, ascended into the theater’s fly space, making for a delightfully literal delivery of the song’s final lyric: “I’m levitating.”
Bell Biv DeVoe brought old-school charm.
With its throwback performance, the R&B outfit Bell Biv DeVoe had the most fun with the least fuss. The trio, who first appeared at the AMAs in 1991, performed in front of a slapdash, retro set in jewel-tone blazers and fedoras, step-touching their way through renditions of “Do Me!” and “Poison,” from their 1990 debut album. The overall looseness of the performance set the group apart from the other boy band in the night’s lineup, the ever-polished BTS. But with their unmistakably live vocals, BBD scored points in the authenticity department; their efforts were made all the more endearing by their commitment to hyping up a nonexistent crowd.
Hip-hop claimed some space.
In recognition of the “undeniable crossover success” of Latin and hip-hop artists, the AMAs introduced a handful of new categories this year — a step toward redressing some historical blind spots. Rappers also got significant airtime throughout the night, especially compared to last year, when rap’s presence on the AMAs stage started and ended with a Travis Scott cameo. Megan Thee Stallion debuted “Body,” from her new album, “Good News” (though the song’s spice was somewhat watered down by the network’s censors). Lil Baby delivered a message about mental health with a performance of “Emotionally Scarred.” And 24kGoldn joined forces with Iann Dior for a buoyant “Mood.”
By Olivia Horn