The stated theme for this year's iHeartRadio Music Awards was "My Journey," which meant that the show featured, in addition to performances and acceptance speeches, artists describing formative moments in their careers.
There was Kelly Clarkson talking about winning "American Idol." There was Nicki Minaj recalling her first conversation with her mentor Lil Wayne. There was Hozier remembering how his song "Take Me to Church" blew up online.
And Cole Swindell? Well, this young country singer singled out the time he met Tim McGraw at — wait for it — the Academy of Country Music Awards.
When historians look back for the moment that music awards shows reached over-saturation, they may well decide it was this three-hour (not-so-)special, broadcast live Sunday night on NBC from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Now in their second year, the iHeartRadio awards were presented by the radio conglomerate formerly known as Clear Channel, which brands the show as a populist alternative to the Grammy Awards, with prizes based on radio play and fans' votes rather than the preferences of unnamed industry insiders.
As the similarly designed American Music Awards have demonstrated, there's a place for that mission, especially after the Grammys last month, when Beck's win over Beyoncé for album of the year was widely regarded as the latest sign of that show's being out of touch. (Viewers also help: The first iHeartRadio awards drew 5.5 million of them, guaranteeing a follow-up.)
But if Sunday's winners did indeed emphasize the people's taste — top trophies went to Taylor Swift, 5 Seconds of Summer and Calvin Harris — the show's lineup of performers still felt defined by music's power structure. They all seemed to be currying favor with or repaying a debt to Top 40 radio's most important player.
Which isn't to say nobody had any fun kissing the ring.
Recruiting Swift for an unannounced cameo on acoustic guitar, Madonna did an appealingly breezy version of her song "Ghosttown." The rowdy country duo Florida Georgia Line lived up to the laid-back promise of its "Sun Daze," ambling around in front of a set dotted with palm trees.
And Rihanna, doing a new single with an explicit title, was a vision of over-the-top swagger as she sauntered out from a prop helicopter wearing a lime-green fur coat and matching thigh-high boots.
More plentiful, though, were safe, low-impact appearances by the likes of Iggy Azalea and Jennifer Hudson, who ran through their duet "Trouble" as though they'd never gotten into any, and Jason Aldean, who seemed entirely out of fire in his country hit "Burnin' It Down."
Kelly Clarkson sounded great in "Heartbeat Song" but moved so little that you wondered if her feet had been bolted to the floor. Meghan Trainor looked like a zombie in "Dear Future Husband," a song with the back-from-the-grave sexual politics to match.
And though Jamie Foxx was lively enough as the show's host (at least when he wasn't poking mean-spirited fun at Bruce Jenner), his run through a new tune with Chris Brown felt like a barely there memory of some old Keith Sweat routine.
Perhaps Foxx was attempting a journey to the past — a time when awards shows were worth getting excited about.