While the boring adults of America were biding their time until the "Mad Men" series finale Sunday, the kids down the hall were donning headphones, staring at screens and occasionally dancing while reveling in another kind of televised marketing exploration: the Billboard Music Awards.
The annual ceremony and ABC infomercial, broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, celebrated the most popular acts in America with a string of performances. Many were lip-synced. Others were poorly mixed. Kanye West's takes on "All Day" and "Black Skinhead" were so bleeped by the censors that big chunks of them were silent. TV personalities from shows including "Empire," "Grey's Anatomy," "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and "The Bachelor" presented the awards, and rapper Ludacris and supermodel Chrissy Teigen served as cohosts.
As determined by sales, radio airplay, streams and social-media interactions, the Billboard Music Awards are, by definition, a popularity contest. As such, its nominees included some of the biggest names and best-looking in contemporary pop music, including Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams, Kelly Clarkson, Wiz Khalifa, Meghan Trainor, Sam Smith and Hozier. The night's biggest winner was Taylor Swift, who took eight trophies and occupied the most screen time.
Most of the other victors, including One Direction, Florida Georgia Line, Iggy Azalea and John Legend, were in Vegas to accept their awards. Many of the more prominent nonwinners, including Pharrell, Beyoncé and Perry, were conspicuously absent. This isn't the Grammys, after all. It's not even the MTV Video Music Awards. Why come here just to lose?
Plus, it didn't take a mathematician to calculate that one artist, Swift, dominated the charts over the last year and that she would therefore leave with the most awards. She won in categories including top artist, top Hot 100 artist and top digital song as well as the fan-voted Billboard Chart Achievement Award. Sitting in the front row with her boyfriend, Calvin Harris, Swift stole the show without even performing.
It's probably more accurate to say that Swift served as the show's crutch. The artist not only won but she was also shown reacting to nearly every onstage moment. The lens caught Swift singing along, lost inside "Girl Crush" while onstage, Little Big Town and Faith Hill delivered a memorable rendition of the great new country song. We witnessed Swift jam to her friend Ed Sheeran's strummy "Bloodstream." We watched her watch music. And in a maneuver that would awe Don Draper, Swift opened the show with a free four-minute prime-time commercial — otherwise known as a music video — for her new track "Bad Blood."
Awards? Yes, there were awards. But they're mostly meaningless to everyone but the artists, their families and their handlers. This night, and the whole reason for the three hours of broadcast and 51 minutes of commercials, was about "live" renditions of hit songs.
The best performances? Fallout Boy's frenetic take on "Uma," their ode to Uma Thurman. The stomping song samples the surf-rock guitar riff from "The Munsters" theme, which the band tore through while a host of female dancers ripped through go-go suggestive moves. Near the end, rapper Khalifa arrived to add a verse.
Her hands heavy with diamond rings, Hill held her microphone close during her guest spot with Little Big Town for "Girl Crush." The song, about a love so heavy that it transcends jealousy, made the volume of mediocre artistry surrounding it nearly bearable. Clarkson also excelled. She sang live — of course. Clarkson is fearless and proved it with a confident take on her new "Invincible."
The worst performances? Nick Jonas held a heavy metal guitar for most of his performance of "Jealous," but it was mostly a prop. Imagine Dragons "honored" Ben E. King's memory with a take on "Stand By Me" that illustrated just how vocally and musically soulless a band it is. (Swift seemed to love it, so what do I know?)
At least the band performed it live. Britney Spears teamed with Azalea for a notably flat karaoke version of "Pretty Girls." Beamed onto the stage like androids while a bunch of bicyclists with neon-spoked wheels and roller skaters circled, the singer and the rapper lip-synced while frat-dude bros wearing backward caps danced and pumped their fists in unison.
Mariah Carey, who just opened a Las Vegas residency, sounded unrehearsed, her voice buried deep in the mix for takes on "Infinity" and "Vision of Love." It was far from perfect — at least what you could hear of it. Surrounded by much instrumentation as if to mask her deficiencies, she capped "Vision" with an upper octave squeal. It very much impressed Swift.