In a sprawling, scattered ceremony, the 2018 Billboard Music Awards tried its hardest to be an awards show with both meaning and pizzazz. The ceremony opened with sincere words from host Kelly Clarkson, who, despite her insistence that she wasn't the right person for the job, pulled off one of the tidiest hosting jobs this year. (It helped that the show itself moved at a fast clip.)
"Before we start tonight, there's something I'd like to — this is going to be so hard," Clarkson said, fumbling a little. Clarkson's inserts throughout the show never felt scripted. This speech in particular felt organic and human. Clarkson claimed "they" — whoever plans the show, I suppose — wanted her to observe a moment of silence.
"So why don't we not do a moment of silence, why don't we do a moment of action? Why don't we change what's happening? Because it's horrible. And mamas and daddies should be able to send their kids to school, to church, to movie theaters. You should be able to live your life without that kind of fear."
Clarkson's speech gave way to the first performance of the night: Ariana Grande, mumbling her way through "No Tears Left To Cry," her first single since the Manchester bombing at her concert last year. Grande, clad in thigh-high boots and a black bubble dress, danced around umbrellas. Grande's live vocals are always flawless, though her performances tend to lack a certain verve. "NTLTC" is an optimistic upper of a song, though, and it launched the show perfectly.
This leaves the opportunity for Clarkson to do something goofy — did you think the BBMAs would let her get away with just pure solemnity? Nope! After promising not to do anything extravagant, Clarkson launched into a medley of today's greatest hits, including "Humble" by Kendrick Lamar and "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran. The routine would have seemed silly — and it has, when other awards shows have tried this format — if Clarkson weren't such a skilled vocalist and endearing performer. Play to your strengths, Kelly, and ye shall succeed. The less successful part of the medley were the accoutrements, which included a fedora (for when Clarkson sang as Bruno Mars in "Finesse") and a gymnast doing flips.
A note: Clarkson reportedly had a co-host who dropped out, leaving Clarkson to host alone. I'll leave you to speculate on who flaked on our girl.
The ceremony got into a rhythm shortly after, beginning with a performance from Dua Lipa, who sang "New Rules" from atop a giant flamingo. Throughout the night, the tone vacillated from celebratory to somber as the celebrities came to terms with their platform. If there's anything 2018 has made clear, it's that awards shows carry a lot of opportunity for political and cultural discourse, and the BBMAs seemed desperate not to squander it. The Chainsmokers and Halsey took to opportunity to mourn the loss of the DJ Avicii, whose struggle with mental health and substance abuse contributed to his suicide. When Luis Fonsi accepted the award for Top Hot 100 Song for "Despacito," he made an indirect reference to the racist lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, who earlier this week made headlines when a video of him scolding two New Yorkers for speaking Spanish surfaced.
The performances would then steer the proceedings back to routine razzle-dazzle entertainment: Shawn Mendes performed "In My Blood" among a field of tulips; Khalid and Normani slithered through an impressive performance of their song "Love Lies." For some good old-fashioned celebrity awards-show intrigue, we had one surprise, not-previously announced attendant, one with lots of baggage (and talent): Taylor Swift.
Swift has a habit of being off-tone, but at the BBMAs this year, she hit the mark. Mostly. She dedicated her award for Top Female Artist to all the "future top female artists who picked up a guitar or learned to play piano." She later earned the award for Top Selling Album, at which point the BBMAs decided to play a video tribute to reputation and Swift's ever-growing list of record-breaking commercial achievements. Swift's return is intriguing: she hasn't been at an awards show since 2016, and, in the meantime, she's developed a Twitter-inspired snake aesthetic and an aggressive new musical sound. This prodigal daughter's return to a slightly different landscape felt fraught, somehow.
The show really gained steam as performers with increasing renown took the stage. John Legend, surrounded by child actors, performed in what looked like the same Jesus costume he wore during Jesus Christ Superstar. He knew who the real star of the night was, though: his new baby Miles, whose photo did appear at this point during the broadcast.
Later, Christina Aguilera teamed up with Demi Lovato for what felt like the pop rendition of "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." Rest assured, they both can Do It very well! Somewhere in the bellowing and the marching and the leather trenchcoats, though, the message of their single was lost.
Jennifer Lopez fared better, as only J. Lo can, with a performance of "Dinero," a collab with Cardi B and DJ Khaled. Lopez sliced through a clean, we-miss-the-'00s dance performance while cigar-chomping Khaled, ever the puzzle, threw money at the audience. (The audience, based on Twitter's reaction, was none too pleased; pregnant Cardi B, sadly, only appeared in video clips.)
Then, at the height of revelry, the ceremony paused to honor the victims of the Santa Fe shooting Friday. Mendes and Khalid teamed up with a choir from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida to sing their song "Youth." As the camera panned over the audience, a number of attendees wept, including Halsey.
Next up, enter: Janet Jackson, who performed a somewhat jarring, random medley of her hits ("Nasty," "If" and "Throb." That's it?!). It was too short, and not all-encompassing, especially when it comes to Jackson, whose had over three decades of bangers. Her acceptance speech, though, will be remembered.
“We live in 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 told the crowd. She advised the crowd to look to God, who has in abundance whatever we lack. These days, it's rare that celebrities address their faith so directly at awards shows, but then again, we are watching awards shows in trying times.
The ceremony closed with arguably the night's most spirited performances: BTS took the stage, during which the show wasn't really on stage but rather in the audience, where the average fan looked to be 14 years old and rabidly enthusiastic (the screaming!). This kind of unbridled fandom doesn't usually touch down at awards ceremonies. Camila Cabello, a proto-Taylor Swift, was the final Youth to take the stage, slaying "Sangria Wine" and "Havana" with killer vocals and choreo (even making us forget a bizarre, you-are-on-Mars stage design). Cabello was quietly the star of the whole ceremony via audience cutaways — no one knows how to enjoy an awards ceremony like Camila Cabello! Maybe that's why they're generally so tepid. After BTS, in a perfect send-off, Salt-N-Pepa (with an assist from En Vogue for "Whatta Man) reunited for an energetic, still-got-it tour through their 90s hits.
The BBMAs, unlike starchier awards shows like the Oscars or the Grammys, don't have a lot to lose – in part because the ceremony doesn't have much of an identity. It's the food court of awards shows: every chain is here and, ostensibly, you're bound to find something you like. In another era, this might have seemed desperate, or cheap. But the scrappiness of the BBMAs, at least in Clarkson's hands, has a comfy appeal. You are going to find something you like. And, at the very least, you'll find it fast.