How to judge Kelly Clarkson's first time hosting an awards show?
Consider that the singer brought a touch of suspense — and a deep well of feeling — to an annual production whose predictable data-based prizes include one for the year's top-selling album.
Welcoming viewers to Sunday's Billboard Music Awards, broadcast live on NBC from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Clarkson stood before the cameras in a stark cold open and admitted, "This is gonna be so hard."
The former "American Idol" champ had been asked to lead a moment of silence, she said, for the victims of last week's high school shooting near Houston. Yet as a native Texan and a mother of four, she explained that such an idea didn't sit right with her — that moments of silence are no longer sufficient when "once again … we're grieving for more kids" who died for "no reason at all."
Fighting back tears, Clarkson instead proposed "a moment of change," and whether or not she'd run her comments by the show's organizers ahead of time, the display felt startlingly unrehearsed.
It was an expression of raw humanity in an environment that historically has suppressed them.
And it wasn't the only one Sunday.
Accepting the award for top Hot 100 song, Luis Fonsi (of "Despacito" fame) thanked listeners for embracing a tune sung mostly in Spanish, then dedicated the trophy to immigrants and dreamers and "all those who get made fun of when you speak with an accent."
The usually dopey Chainsmokers used their time onstage (after being named top dance/electronic artist) to speak movingly about the inspiration they'd taken from the Swedish producer Avicii, who died last month.
Then there was Janet Jackson, this year's winner of Billboard's lifetime-achievement Icon Award. After performing a medley of several of her hits, Jackson began her acceptance speech by saying she believes that, despite all our challenges, "we live at a glorious moment in history."
"It's a moment when, at long last, women have made it clear that we will no longer be controlled, manipulated or abused," she said. "I stand with those women and with those men equally outraged by discrimination — who support us in heart and mind."
As Clarkson had suggested, silence wasn't the thing here.
Similarly vivid emotions came through in Sunday's performances, which in another surprise were generally stronger than Billboard's typically lifeless awards-show norm — one perverse effect of a culture in which we're constantly weighing the consequences of mass murder.
Kicking off the three-hour program after Clarkson's call to action, Ariana Grande was tender but resolute in "No More Tears Left to Cry," her comeback single following the 2017 terrorist bombing that killed 22 people as fans were leaving her concert in Manchester, England.
Shawn Mendes and Khalid invited members of a choir from Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — where 17 people died in a shooting in February — to join them for their duet "Youth," in which they sing, "You can't take my youth away." The result was as stirring as it was simple.
And you had to admire the blend of grit and sensuality in Jackson's "Nasty," which seemed to be pushing back against years of narrow thinking about what a middle-aged woman should be doing with her body. (Other winners beyond Jackson included Ed Sheeran, named top artist; Khalid, who took top new artist; and Taylor Swift, whose triple-platinum "Reputation" was recognized — duh — as top-selling album.)
Not everything worked as well as those highlights.
Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato were two leather-lunged singers in search of a song in their tuneless "Fall in Line," while John Legend's corny "A Good Night" made him look like he'd gotten lost on his way to a gig at somebody's wedding.
There were painful showings as well by two talented women unfortunately paired with useless dudes: first Jennifer Lopez, whose rendition of "Dinero" started with DJ Khaled watching Shia LaBeouf in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," then Kesha, who joined Macklemore for a "Good Old Days" that just made you long for a time before they met.
The show ended with another concession to nostalgia in the form of Salt-N-Pepa, the trailblazing hip-hop trio that performed a medley of its hits from the late '80s and early '90s, including "Push It," "Shoop" and "Let's Talk About Sex."
But if the finale seemed to strike a throwback note out of step with the Billboard Awards' otherwise timely vibe, the picture changed once En Vogue joined Salt-N-Pepa for a sharp and knowing take on their classic "Whatta Man."
The lyrics may have been celebrating "a mighty, mighty good man." But the performance was enacting the proud female energy that Jackson so strikingly described as the spirit of right now.