Commentary: The American Music Awards plays like an exercise in not trying very hard

Taylor Swift performs "I Did Something Bad" at the American Music Awards.
( Matt Sayles / Invision / Associated Press)
Share via
Pop Music Critic

You can imagine how this might’ve gone down in an alternate universe.

Taylor Swift, fresh from her internet-rattling endorsement of two Democrats running for congressional seats in next month’s midterm elections, takes the stage at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles to open Tuesday’s American Music Awards.

She’s wearing an Uncle Sam hat — one of those tall stars-and-stripes numbers — and as her band vamps on the groove from her song “Look What You Made Me Do,” she delivers a lengthy, detailed speech about the scourge of gerrymandering.

Needless to say, this is not what happened here in our world.

Instead, the pop superstar began this most inconsequential of awards shows with an assured but un-thrilling rendition of “I Did Something Bad” — a carefully choreographed routine that likely felt familiar to anyone who caught Swift on her recent world tour, back when she famously kept mum on matters of politics.


So, a lost opportunity for this newly engaged activist? For sure.

But Swift was far from the only one not trying especially hard in a program, broadcast live on ABC, that seemed built around obligatory performances by artists who’d been assured they’d win something if they just turned up. (For her troubles, Swift — who in an acceptance speech did urge fans to “get out and vote” — was named artist of the year and took home the prizes for tour of the year and favorite pop/rock album; other winners in this fan-voted contest included Camila Cabello, for new artist of the year, and Carrie Underwood, for favorite female country artist.)

Cardi B performs "I Like It" at the American Music Awards.
(Matt Sayles / Invision / Associated Press)

2018 American Music Awards: Full winners list »

Singing her forgettable new single “With You,” Mariah Carey was weirdly wooden as she stood there in a shimmery pink gown amid a crew of male dancers putting in much more work than she was.

Post Malone seemed close to falling asleep — closer than usual, that is — as he did a medley of his heavy-lidded hip-hop hits “Psycho” and “Better Now.” And though you could tell she was going for a kind of Broadway-diva grandiosity, Cabello’s dreary “Consequences” sounded like something you’d hear during last call at a suburban wine bar.

No wonder the ungainly trio of Halsey, Khalid and Benny Blanco styled their performance of “Eastside” to look like they were just bumming around somebody’s apartment.


Why put in a big effort if nobody else is?

There were a couple of exceptions to this low-affect vibe — most notably Cardi B’s lively, colorful take on her summer smash “I Like It” that suggested we’d suddenly been transported to some hopping after-hours Latin club. (Too bad Jennifer Lopez didn’t stay in that club to do “Limitless,” a boring power ballad for which one of pop’s greatest movers wore a boxy power suit.)

And though she might be the least charismatic singer on the Top 40 right now, Dua Lipa mashed up her dance-pop tracks “One Kiss” and “Electricity” in a steamy club scene full of fond memories of 1990s house music.

Erica Campbell, left, and Tina Campbell of Mary Mary perform during a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin at the American Music Awards.
(Matt Sayles / Invision / Associated Press)

As always, the AMAs offered tributes to a couple of dearly departed icons, in this case Aretha Franklin and Queen’s Freddie Mercury (the latter of whom is the subject of an upcoming big-screen biopic with ties to ABC’s corporate parent, Disney).

To salute Mercury, Panic! at the Disco did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was … fine.

But for Franklin the show actually pulled together a pretty inspired group of performers in Gladys Knight, CeCe Winans and Mary Mary to pay homage to the Queen of Soul’s gospel roots.

They sang hard, digging into “Amazing Grace” and “Mary Don’t You Weep.” They sang like they meant it, dispensing with vanity to channel a funky religiosity.


They sang, in other words, like they were on some other awards show.

Twitter: @mikaelwood