Review: How the American Music Awards balanced politics and promotion

Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day performs during Sunday's American Music Awards.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

The artist’s responsibility met the demands of celebrity at Sunday’s American Music Awards, where half the assembled talent was eager to comment on a new political reality and the other half was eager to promote new product before beating a path to their chauffeured SUVs.

The latter feeling was to be expected, of course, at the last major awards show before the beginning of the busy holiday shopping season.

But as the highest-profile ceremony since this month’s earthquake of a presidential election, the AMAs — broadcast live on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles — also offered an irresistible platform to any celebrity who’d spent the previous week and a half itching to say something about Donald Trump.

The most vivid commentary regarding the controversial president-elect came from Green Day, the veteran Bay Area punk band that performed its song “Bang Bang.” The lead single from the group’s politically inspired “Revolution Radio” album, it’s already a pretty heated number, with words that seek to get inside the head of a mass shooter.


Here, though, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong added a fist-pumping chant to the middle of the tune: “No Trump! / No KKK! / No fascist USA!”

Time will tell whether Trump responds to the provocation the way he did over the weekend to mockery on “Saturday Night Live” and a call-out from the cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton.”

But even if the protest fell on deaf (or merely sympathetic) ears, it was a thrill to see this choreographed back-slapping event — generally the least consequential of the major awards shows — ruptured by what felt like real, unfiltered anger.

Idina Menzel invoked the “Hamilton” dust-up in her presentation of one of the night’s awards, counting herself among the “unsafe, scary theater people” unlikely to be invited to Trump’s inauguration.

And Sting, who turned up to accept a lifetime achievement award, appeared to refer to Trump’s proposed immigration policies when he identified America’s “spirit of inclusion” as the quality that made it the greatest country in the world. (Other big winners of the fan-voted contest included Ariana Grande, Zayn and Drake.)

John Legend performs "Love Me Now."
John Legend performs “Love Me Now.”
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images )

John Legend took a similarly warm-and-fuzzy approach in his performance of “Love Me Now,” which he introduced by saying, “Let’s celebrate love tonight.”

Yet the show’s typically harmless co-hosts — model Gigi Hadid and comedian Jay Pharaoh — went sharper, cracking jokes about the Electoral College, Melania Trump’s plagiarism and the president-elect’s inability to “tell what color” Bruno Mars was.

“So I can’t deport him,” Pharaoh said as he impersonated Trump.

Mars himself opened the show with one of the evening’s most appealing bits of good-times escapism. Performing his shameless retro-R&B hit “24K Magic,” the singer paused the song for a Michael Jackson-ish dance break that made clear how completely he’d digested the last half-century of pop music.

Bruno Mars, center, performs "24K Magic."
Bruno Mars, center, performs “24K Magic.”
(Matt Sayles / Invision / Associated Press )

The Weeknd was strong too, albeit in a very different way, singing his song “Starboy” from inside a kind of ice tunnel. You want chilly digital soul music about the nightmare of romance in the Instagram era? This edgy Canadian heartthrob is your (bogey)man.

And then there were the twentysomething weirdos of Twenty One Pilots, perhaps the year’s most improbable breakout act, doing a medley of their hard-to-classify emo-rap songs “Heathens” and “Stressed Out” (the success of which brought them to the stage to collect two awards).

Wearing filmy black masks that concealed their faces, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun might’ve been registering their discontent with Trump and his thoughts on torture.

But then again, these Top 40 misfits — proud representatives of the swing state of Ohio — might simply have been having a bad hair day.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


PHOTOS: American Music Awards 2016 red carpet arrivals

Green Day gets political at the AMAs: ‘No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.’

American Music Awards try to bring pop levity in a stressful time