Pop stars have plenty to sell but little to say at Billboard Music Awards

Madonna performs a tribute to Prince during the Billboard Music Awards.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images )

Nobody goes to the Billboard Music Awards to find out who won — not even the nominated artists.

Unlike the Grammy Awards or the MTV Video Music Awards, to name just two of the other shows in an increasingly crowded field, the Billboards are based on the trade magazine’s closely watched sales charts, meaning that the results are easily predicted by anyone with an interest, professional or otherwise, in doing so.

“I can’t believe I’ve won another one,” Adele said as she accepted the trophy for this year’s Top Billboard 200 Album, and given that sales of her “25” dwarfed those of every other album in competition, you could practically taste the British singer’s finely honed sarcasm.

Why, then, did some of pop’s best and brightest turn up for the show broadcast live Sunday night on ABC from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas? That depends on the specific star in question — though each, of course, had the necessary work of hype in mind.


For Britney Spears, this year’s production was an opportunity to receive a nearly meaningless prize — the Millennium Award, I believe it was called? — and to remind viewers that her Vegas residency, “Piece of Me,” is still running at Planet Hollywood. Unfortunately, the evidently lip-synced medley of hits she played (including “Womanizer” and “Toxic”) served only to demonstrate how diminished a live performer she’s become since her early-2000s peak.

Justin Bieber was similarly low-impact in a strung-together rendition of his songs “Company” and “Sorry,” both of which he’s performing on his world tour. At Staples Center in March, the former teen-pop singer conjured a potent tent-revival vibe, but here his savior was a sophisticated light show that half-concealed how bored he seemed.

Other acts on apparent autopilot at the end of a long awards-show season: Meghan Trainor, whose “No” had all the sass of a fed-up lunch lady; Nick Jonas, all out of sexy moves with Tove Lo in “Close”; and Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, who really need to find a way to spend time together that doesn’t involve doing their duet “Go Ahead and Break My Heart” on television.

We get it already: You’re in love — and you have albums to promote.

Britney Spears' performance served as a reminder that she has a Vegas show of her own.
Britney Spears’ performance served as a reminder that she has a Vegas show of her own.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP )

Madonna had a worthier reason for showing up in Sin City: a show-closing tribute to Prince, her one-of-a-kind peer in 1980s pop superstardom.

But given all they shared — their flair for provocation, their love of funk, their taste in outrageous costumes — you had to wonder why in the world Madonna chose to honor her late friend with a deeply shaky rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a ballad she couldn’t pull off with even half the expressive ability of Prince or Sinead O’Connor.

After that she brought out Stevie Wonder to lead the audience through “Purple Rain,” which delivered at least a bit of feeling. (Wonder on autopilot equals basically every other artist in total concentration.)


Again, though, the takeaway here was: What a waste.

Not everything was so bad. Pink was her usual high-flying self as she took to a trapeze to do her new single “Just Like Fire.” Nick Jonas’ older brother Joe had some fun with his band DNCE in the appealingly manic “Cake by the Ocean.”

And Kesha sang powerfully in a stripped-down rendition of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” a classy way to address her ongoing legal fight with the producer Dr. Luke.

But they all looked like show-business strivers compared to Rihanna. Wrapped in a fur stole, her hair relatively unfussed with, the singer exuded a beautiful calm as she ambled through her broke-down R&B slow jam “Love on the Brain.”


She wasn’t there to win an award or to sell us on a new fragrance. (That’ll come later on Instagram.) For the moment, she was there just to sing.

Twitter: @mikaelwood



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