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The 2016 AMAs’ Highs and Many, Many Lows

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It’s not saying much about an awards show when a Drake commercial and a Selena Gomez acceptance speech are the highlights of the night.

In the opening of Sunday’s American Music Awards, supermodel co-host Gigi Hadid quipped, “Don’t worry, guys — tonight we don’t have to worry about the Electoral College.” But this show’s fan-elected awards didn’t make a great case for the popular vote, either. Some of the show’s best and worst moments…

HIGH: Selena Gomez’s speech

“Keeping it real” has never been the hallmark of this puffy-and-proud show, so Gomez jolted everyone to attention with an emotional acceptance speech that started by marking the anniversary of her public candor: “In 2014, this stage was actually the first time that I was authentically 100 percent honest with all of you. I think it’s safe to say that most of you know a lot of my life, whether I liked it or not. And I had to stop. Because I had everything and I was absolutely broken inside. And I kept it all together enough to where I would never let you down, but I kept it too much together to where I let myself down.

“I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram,” she continued. “I want to see what’s in [your heart]. I’m not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore. All I can say from the bottom of my heart is I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to be able to share what I love every single day with people that I love. And I have to say thank you so much to my fans, because you guys are so damn loyal, and I don’t know what I did to deserve you. But if you are broken, you do not have to stay broken. And if that’s anything, whether you respect me or not, that’s one thing you should know about me, I care about people. And this is for you, thank you.”

Selena Gomez accepts the Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist award onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Selena Gomez accepts the Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist award onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Cynics might see the speech as self-aggrandizing, but for a minute and a half, at least, we could be sure we were seeing a human being onstage, and it was a welcome sight. Lady Gaga, beaming in the audience, seemed to approve the most.

LOW: Hosts Jay Pharoah and Gigi Hadid

Ahead of time, plenty of viewers were asking, “Why?” when it came to this particular couple as hosts. And no answer was forthcoming. Pharoah’s main calling card for the gig continues to be his Jay Z and Kanye impressions, but both of those inevitable bits were practically thrown away as afterthoughts, leaving little else for him to do except say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Hadid’s Melania Trump impression was actually better than the Twitter universe gave it credit for — it takes one to know one — but she gave little reason to suspect little reason to think she’ll be back next year. Unless it’s possible that literally no one else wants the gig?

HIGH: Bruno Mars’s opening salute to Adidas

“24K Magic” wasn’t “Uptown Funk,” but if you love the ‘80s, either for its synths or sneakers, this was a reminder of a better time than the year that was about to be undeservedly celebrated.

HIGH: Lady Gaga, country-fied

Gaga continued her “hey, I’m organic now” tour of televised America, and while “Million Reasons” is probably not destined to be most of her fans’ favorite song, it did make for the show’s one token country music segment. On top of her shockingly non-shocking, nearly Middle American (albeit Middle-American-in-leather) look, the producers found a way to transplant an entire prairie onto the stage, which deserves some plaudits in itself. All that was missing was actual groundhogs.

LOW: The Chainsmokers

Has any act as personal-charisma-challenged as the Chainsmokers ever had the song of the year before? For better or worse, this time, there was no icky PDA between Drew Taggard and Halsey, as there was three months ago on the MTV Video Music Awards. In fact, the two seemed to have given a “pretend you two have no chemistry at all” direction. Without the memorable display of underboob that Halsey gave the world at the VMAs, there was nothing to remember about this “Closer” at all.

Drew Taggart (R), of the Chainsmokers, and Halsey perform onstage at the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/AMA2016/WireImage)
Drew Taggart (R), of the Chainsmokers, and Halsey perform onstage at the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/AMA2016/WireImage)

HIGH: Sting gets political without getting political

He’s crafty, this one. While some other folks (like Green Day; more on them later) threw blatant shade at the incoming president, Sting used his lifetime award acceptance speech to basically sub-tweet about Trump, repeatedly describing himself as a proud “immigrant” and saying “the spirit of welcome and inclusion… is what made this country the greatest country in the world.” Oh, and he performed, and well. We did cock our heads, though, at Robert Downey Jr.’s odd introduction, which described the Sting-meister as “one of the most talented and giving humans ever to walk the earth” and comparing his catalog to a classroom, promising, “Later in the semester you will likely learn to care about the fate of mankind.”

LOW: Niall Horan, One Directioner-gone-folkie

“Substituting tonight in the role of Ed Sheeran is….”

Niall Horan performs onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Niall Horan performs onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

HIGH: Drake’s commercial

The bad news: This year’s AMAs flogged a “premiere” that turned out to be an Apple Music commercial unapologetically integrated right into the body of the show. The good news: At least it was a highlight of the show. The bad news: It was a highlight of the show. Let’s be honest: However crass this breakdown of the line between content and advertising might have been, it was a kick seeing Drake grunt out “Bad Blood” while lifting weights… but not as big a kick as it would’ve been seeing the 13-time nominee actually perform live, something you know the producers must have begged for.

HIGH: Green Day’s rock revival

After a lot of years in which there wasn’t a single rock band on either the AMAs or the VMAs, this show had three — count ‘em! three! — rock acts on the telecast. Foremost among them was Green Day, who actually found a way to channel the politics the hosts swore we wouldn’t be getting into a song, chanting, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” But more than that, here was a band getting back to its roots with a blast of energy that seemed to take it for go-for-broke granted that their radio smash days are behind them and they can just punk it up again.

LOW: Justin Bieber phones it in, literally and figuratively

Not very live, in any way, from Switzerland.

LOW: DJ Khaled shouts, and shouts, and shouts

DJ Khaled bragged about having the #1 song in the country, which puzzled a lot of viewers who looked up — and posted to social media — that “Do You Mind” currently sits at #39 on the Billboard Hot 100. But that bragging wasn’t as big a sin as his constantly outshouting the three guests he had onstage… which maybe isn’t that hard when his mic is live and some of the others are clearly lip-synching. OK, one more sin: leaving Nicki Minaj stranded onstage for minutes at a time with nothing to do.

(L-R) Rick Ross, Future, Nicki Minaj, August Alsina and DJ Khaled perform onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
(L-R) Rick Ross, Future, Nicki Minaj, August Alsina and DJ Khaled perform onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

LOW: twenty one pilots’ SNL rerun

Not that many weeks ago, the duo did a galvanizing rendition of their Suicide Squad song on Saturday Night Live with a strong string section backing. How to outdo that recent memory? With, uh, green footlights and smoke blasts. Hard to tell whether to blame the act or the production designers for the lack of imagination, but “We’ve seen this before, only better” is not the feeling you want to leave millions of viewers with. They also wore full face masks, and while we know that’s part of their live show, between that and the Weeknd performing from a tunnel that resembled Superman’s ice cave, we had to wonder if some of the better acts at the AMAs wanted to establish some sort of plausible deniability that they were even on the show.

Josh Dun (L) and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots perform onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Josh Dun (L) and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots perform onstage during the 2016 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)