No one would usually describe the performances on the American Music Awards as "a race to the top." Yet for the better part of the three hours, more artists than not seemed determined to keep it classy, including several who've been known for pushing TV's sexual boundaries in the past. There was an obvious reason for that. The attention whores of the decade, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, were booked to close the show. So while Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, and J.Lo have all certainly had their controversial moments in the past, they knew better than to risk being knocked for failing to beat the current queens of pop at the shock-value game.
So were Miley and Gaga worth the nearly three-hour wait? And did the 2013 AMAs deserve "Wrecking Ball," or deserve a wrecking ball? Here's a recap of the show's highlights:
1. Lady Gaga and R. Kelly feign political scandal. Gaga must have really liked doing sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, or maybe she's just a big "Trapped in the Closet" fan. Either way, her "Do What U Want" couldn't have been sillier, as she played Marilyn Monroe to "President" R. Kelly, barging into the Oval Office and telling the least reliable commander-in-chief ever that he was more than welcome to command her.
Weirdly, the segment broke with its presidential theme at the end so that we could see some historical footage of Gaga playing the piano as a preteen. The message: Practice hard, young ladies, and maybe you can grow up to tell a guy famous for facing child-porn charges to "do whatever u want" to you.
2. Miley Cyrus gets catty. Cyrus sang her heart out on the show-closing "Wrecking Ball." But who was listening when there was so much mental parsing to be done of what was happening visually? It wasn't even so much about how little her two-piece left to the imagination. Rather, as Cyrus stood uncharacteristically still, the screen behind her had a computerized cat face mouthing the words of the song.
There was a sort of evil genius at work here. If you were to point out that the image behind Cyrus seemed obviously designed to bring to mind a certain vulgarism for the female anatomy, she could accuse you of being the one with the smutty mind. We wouldn't want that, so let's all agree that Miley's visual design represented a return to "Hannah Montana"-esque — no, pre-"Hannah" — innocence! Whew.
3. Justin Timberlake and Sarah Silverman get their own race war going. Not long before she appeared onstage as a presenter, Silverman tweeted, "Oh my. Producers of the AMAs just killed my bit. So…I guess I'll just wing it?" A while after that, she reassured everyone with this update: "Aaand we're back." What was so controversial that she was having a last-minute backstage battle with the show's head honchos? This: "There are three amazing nominees for Soul/R&B album tonight — one a white kid from The Mickey Mouse Club, another the son of the dad from Growing Pains, and one a strong, soulful, Caribbean woman of color. I don't know who will win, but I do know who should find this most ironic if she loses."
As someone who constantly has to deal with women-in-comedy questions, shouldn't Silverman be more sensitive to the poor white-guy-in-R&B predicament? Sure enough, Timberlake won, and he had a pointed word or two for his presenter in his acceptance speech: "Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I can honestly say that's the first time I've ever been racially profiled by a white woman." Sizzle. Not long after that, Timberlake came on to perform and reasserted his R&B chops by…picking up an acoustic guitar, for a trombone-fueled hootenanny version of "Drink You Away." Hey, it worked.
4. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis also address racism. In an acceptance speech piped from Miami in via satellite, Macklemore promised he was about to get topical, and for a few moments everyone wondered which cause he'd address. Maybe gay rights, as he famously did in the duo's "Same Love" single? Not this time. He dedicated the award to "Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids that are dying each year due to racial profiling" and "the fight against racism and the laws that protect it." The speech didn't feel as tied in to the news as it might have a few months back, but it still provided a shot of relevance on a show otherwise divorced from anything that reflected 2013 in any half-serious way at all.
5. Ariana Grande sets the bar high. It's usually up to Taylor Swift to provide a "class act" element in awards shows these days — and that she did, several times, but only as a presenter or winner, since she was sitting it out as a performer (much to the producers' chagrin, undoubtedly). But 20-year-old Grande took up some of that slack with a sure-and-steady version of "Tattooed Heart" that should have silenced most of her remaining doubters. Ironically, she was one of the least tatted-up performers of the night, her heart notwithstanding.
6. Katy Perry goes geisha. Perry opened the telecast with an elaborately Japanese-themed production design and choreography. It was the most colorful moment of the night, if nothing else. And coming up with a foreign setting for "Unconditionally" made a certain kind of sense, since the weird way that she phrases the title word, with the emphasis on odd syllables, makes it sound as if she's a non-English-speaker who learned the word phonetically.
7. J.Lo goes Cruz-ing. Throughout the evening, Jennifer Lopez appeared in a serialized bunch of ads that asked home viewers to "vote on what J.Lo does next." And apparently, a lot of people voted for Lopez to not sing in English anymore, since her eventual performance was a tribute to Celia Cruz. Ultimately the number was more of an homage to the salsa star's dancing talent than singing chops, but in an era in which most of us take for granted that Lopez is overpampered, it was nice to see her working her butt off, and be reminded that some dancer-singers can do more than twerk.
8. Christina Aguilera subdues herself. Is that even possible? Yes, because Aguilera loves the ballad "Say Something" so much that when she asked to perform the tune alongside its originators, the group A Great Big World, she opted not to do it as a fight to the vocal finish (which her male counterpart would of course lose) but as a true duet. Hearing a powerhouse belter like Aguilera prove she can modulate herself was like an early Christmas miracle.
9. Rihanna joins the classy parade. Even with her hair matted to her head like a skullcap, Riri never looked more beautiful — and sounded it, too, with a rendition of "Diamonds" sung as prelude to her accepting the Icon award at the wise old age of 25. Maybe she chose that one because she knew she couldn't out-sex Miley and Gaga…or maybe it was because she was about to be joined by her mom onstage. And everyone in the house softened a little as Rihanna thanked her mother for letting her "make your life a living hell with my husky little man-voice, as you called it," and as Mama Fenty maternally upheld her oft-controversial daughter.
10. Bruce Springsteen, in absentia, almost steals the show. The only representatives for "rock" on the AMAs were Imagine Dragons, whose kettle-drum-beating performance suggested that maybe they'd had a previous incarnation as a Blue Man Group touring troupe. And most rock fans who tuned in probably weren't that taken by Gaga's and Cyrus's provocative closing numbers. So maybe it was a coincidence of timing — but maybe not — that just eight minutes after the show wrapped up, Bruce Springsteen tweeted out the announcement that he has an album on the way, followed by the full tracklist… as if to say to rock fans who'd just sat through those three hours: "Dying of thirst? Keep holding out for a hero! High Hopes is coming in early 2014."