Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards broadcast often seemed like a battle for pop music’s very soul, as fake smiles and cheesy promo tie-ins vied with serious vocal prowess and displays of genuine emotion for three long, eventful hours. Rising stars like Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan earned their places on the big stage, but it was the bona fide divas (Rihanna, Celine Dion and Adele, who didn’t even sing live) – and always-welcome veteran Stevie Wonder – who ultimately owned the night. Here’s who triumphed and tanked at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Rihanna Belts a Monster Torch Song
Before Rihanna picked up the fan-voted Chart Achievement Award, she issued a timely reminder that Beyoncé isn’t the only superstar singer to release a major LP in 2016. The decidedly old-school “Love on the Brain” – one of Anti‘s surprisingly potent deep cuts – is a passion-fueled torch song given a Rihanna spin (“I’m tired of being played like a violin/What do I gotta do to get in your motherfuckin’ heart?” she sings on record). On Sunday night she fully leaned into the track, showcasing the raspy, gritty side of her voice. Her fiery performance showed not just how far she’s come since the “Pon De Replay” days but where she could potentially take her overflowing charisma and newly unearthed vocal nuance.
BEST: Kesha Covers Dylan, Takes High Road
After all of the past week’s backstage drama, Kesha quietly prevailed on Sunday. To recap: Dr. Luke’s label Kemosabe initially granted Kesha permission to perform at the BBMAs, then changed its mind, then finally relented when the singer denied the rumor that her performance would address her legal battles with Luke and his imprint. Striking in black bolo tie and white suit, Kesha delivered the tribute to Bob Dylan she’s said she always intended, backed by Ben Folds’ piano and a stark violin accompaniment. Kesha’s version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” was understated and heartfelt; the singer turned Dylan’s steely ballad into a statement of quiet strength, suggesting her refusal to be defined by others. The standing ovation she received – a long overdue moment of dignity for an artist whose musical dreams became real-world nightmares – was anything but obligatory.
WORST: Ludacris Goes Full Lech
No awards-show utterance is quite as seat-shiftingly uncomfortable as an attempted dirty joke that falls flat. To open the show, Ludacris announced that Sunday’s ceremony marked his third time hosting the BBMAs, calling that feat “My favorite threesome.” His co-host, Ciara, doomed all night to play glamorously bland straight woman to Luda’s icky quipster, corrected him: He must have meant “threepeat.” In response, Luda dropped the weak punchline, “You like threepeat; I like threesome.” The host not only went on to introduce Heidi Klum as a woman who “likes being naked on the beach,” but brought back his initial failed gag to say of the three female stars of the upcoming movie Bad Moms, “Here’s another threesome I’m all about.” Worse still, Luda’s creepily PG-13 attempts at humor overshadowed the one righteous dig he got in last night: “Unlike the Oscars, we actually have black nominees this evening.”
BEST: Madonna and Stevie Wonder Lead a “Purple Rain” Sing-Along
Some viewers were unimpressed or even outraged at the modest scale of this performance – BET tweeted shade afterward. But no star – probably no stageful of stars – could hope to embody Prince’s genius in a single performance, and maybe it was wise not to try to imitate him. After a moving Questlove speech – Prince’s “departure,” the lifelong Purple One fanatic said, “was an earthquake” – Madonna was revealed, seated in an enormous purple throne that rotated to reveal her spectacular outfit: a silver suit with a Prince-like ruffled shirt. She set aside her trademark fierceness to sing an unshowy “Nothing Compares 2 U,” as photos of the late superstar flashed behind her. Then, unannounced, Stevie Wonder stepped from the wings singing “Purple Rain.” A duet soon became arena-wide sing-along – just as it has in homes and bars and clubs and arenas around the world for the past month.
BEST: Celine’s Heart Will Go On
Celine Dion’s 2016 has been full of tragedy and triumph – in January, her husband, René Angélil, and her brother Daniel died within days of each other, and on Sunday night the Billboard Music Awards honored her with their Icon Award. After an emotional performance of Queen’s crashing ode to perseverance “The Show Must Go On,” Dion received a surprise: Her oldest son, René-Charles, would be presenting her with her trophy. Dion dissolved into weeping and almost immediately apologized for crying, saying she wanted to be “strong for [her] family” and telling her son how happy he made her. “Music has been my passion since before I can almost remember,” she continued. After tearfully thanking her mother (who penned her first song) and her fans, she paid tribute to Angélil, “who I know will continue to watch over me from up above.” Dion’s ability to harness her feelings into moments that resonate widely was on full display here, and she likely inspired more than a few Sunday-night communiqués between loved ones.
WORST: Meghan Trainor Displays Nah to the Ah to the N0, No, No Charisma
True superstars have stage presence. Last night, Meghan Trainor had stage absence. Whatever you think of “No” – let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that it’s the bona fide pop anthem of female empowerment it’s intended to be – Trainor just couldn’t sell her hit onstage. First she was upstaged by the sea of glowing wristbands the audience brandished behind her. Then she was upstaged by her own multihued, spangly dress. Finally, when she strolled through the crowd, she was upstaged by the more charismatic celebrities she enlisted to sing along. The lyrics of Trainor’s anthem connote Janet Jackson-level badassery, but canned-seeming blandness was the best she could muster here. Just … no.
BEST: Britney Spears’ Big Top Routine
As soon as Sunday’s show began, Britney Spears set the bar high – and then literally back-flipped over it – with an eight-minute medley of hits that included “Work Bitch,” “Womanizer,” “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Toxic,” among others. With a little help from dancers dressed variously like Star Wars alien extras and S&M gimps, she performed an eye-popping choreography routine in which she swiveled, twirled, congaed, pole-danced and, perhaps most memorably of all, rode a giant guitar like a mechanical bull. It was a spectacle that got even Wiz Khalifa out of his seat for a better look. Spears ended it perfectly, standing in front of a wall of flame with a justifiably satisfied smile on her face.
BEST: Adele Says Hello From the Other Side (of the World)
Adele couldn’t make it to the T-Mobile Arena on Sunday because of tour obligations (her Adele Live 2016 tour was finishing up a two-night stand in Lisbon), but given the blockbuster sales of her 2015 album, 25, she had to have a presence. Appearing via satellite to accept two of her five awards, she gave American viewers a crash course in British slang, saying she was “super chuffed” to be honored as Top Artist during a charming acceptance speech. While time differences erased the possibility of a trans-Atlantic performance, the video for Adele’s new single, the winking kiss-off “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” did premiere during Sunday’s show; the clip, directed by Grammy nominee Patrick Daughters, is a kaleidoscope dream where Adele, clad in a floor-length floral dress, shows off the spectrum of her post-breakup emotions. (Stankface is heavily involved.)
WORST: Wiz Khalifa’s Puth-less Acceptance Speech
Khalifa returned to Number One on the pop charts last year – the first time he’s reached those lofty heights since 2011, the year of his breakout hit, “Black and Yellow.” When the MC accepted an award last night, he proceeded to acknowledge the greatness of the other tracks in his category, and then he thanked everyone in the audience, the fans, labels, his management, God and more. But he neglected to mention one crucial figure: Charlie Puth, the crooner whose saccharine hook helped make “See You Again” such a success. The omission was heightened by the soundtrack – as Khalifa strutted towards the stage to accept his trophy, it was Puth’s chorus that blared over the soundsystem.
BEST: Justin Bieber Keeps “Company” Low-Key
Bieber’s live performances have earned notice lately for their world-weary quality, and in Las Vegas, he demonstrated why that might be a good look for him. “Company” featured some of the night’s most impressive visuals: initially an airstream motif, and later, bursting red comets that made the singer seem almost like an afterthought at his own show. Bieber’s backup dancers appeared to emerge from the floor; all wore white, as if they were on their way to a baptism, sticking with the redemption narrative that has characterized this singer’s most recent chapter. Bieber moved as much as he needed to and no more, acknowledging the activity around him with the studied disregard of a star who’s seen it all. Against all odds, he’s become the kind of performer who doesn’t need to resort to histrionics to command attention onstage. Only DJ Khaled broke through Bieber’s icy composure: The singer showed the most emotion when interrupting Khaled’s screen time backstage.
WORST: Ciara Curbs Her Enthusiasm
Ciara is no stranger to award-show purgatory, having spent the entirety of last year’s American Music Awards in the Music Freedom Lounge, essentially a T-Mobile-branded cell. On Sunday, she took on what seemed like a more liberating role, making her debut as BBMA co-host, but right from the start, her demeanor seemed strained. Even with her fiancé Russell Wilson present to give moral support, the R&B princess muddled through an awkward evening, feigning enthusiasm during each painful appearance as she set about sapping once-meaningful adjectives like “amazing” and “incredible” of any kind of meaning.( The subversive quality that she demonstrated a month before the awards show, when she refused to say the name of a nominee for Top Rap Artist, her ex Future, whom she’s suing for $15 million for slander and libel, was nowhere to be found.) Ciara may have been outfitted in a slew of glittery, cleavage-baring gowns, including one metallic “naked” ensemble, but nothing could distract from the fact that she continually repeated names and words a beat behind Ludacris, as if she was forever playing catch-up. It turned out to be Rihanna’s night to shine bright like a diamond, so Ciara just seemed like a disappointing glass bauble.
BEST: Demi Lovato Steamrolls Summer Tourmate Nick Jonas
It’s been a rough year for Nick Jonas at awards shows: He flubbed a guitar solo when performing with Kelsea Ballerini at this year’s ACMs, and his duet with Tove Lo at the BBMAs last night was swathed in darkness and failed to generate the requisite heat. In contrast, Demi Lovato came out after Jonas with the force of a Mack truck. Her shirt depicted the gender neutral bathroom sign – the singer recently opted not to play in North Carolina as a protest against the state’s discriminatory “bathroom bill” – and she sang into a gleaming golden microphone as fireworks erupted behind her; everything was combustible and direct. She played a single from summer 2015, but fans were forgiving, and on a night dominated by lip-syncing, she finished with a lengthy bout of impressive melisma.
BEST: Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani Bat Eyelashes
Country’s first couple, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, split last year, but any tabloid will tell you that Shelton already has a new beau: Gwen Stefani, who served as a fellow coach on The Voice. Thomas Rhett gave the two his stamp of approval on Sunday when he introduced them as “a perfect match in real life and onstage,” and the pair performed “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” which appeared Friday on Shelton’s If I’m Honest album. A jewel-encrusted Stefani joined Shelton onstage after the first verse and handled the low end of the harmonies. “How did you get me so into you?” she sang, throwing a big smile his way. The two singers they made up for their lack of movement by maintaining relentless eye contact throughout the whole performance, as if no one else mattered.
BEST: Ariana Grande Enters the Danger Zone
Ariana Grande’s new Dangerous Woman is a leap into mature territory for the onetime Nickelodeon star, and her performance Sunday reflected that ambition. She started off with a bracingly odd solo take on the title track that felt inspired by an edgy after-hours club (she plunked out accompaniment on a synth and altered her voice with a vocoder while hot-pink smoke swirled around her) then jumped into her slinky new single, “Into You,” as a phalanx of black-clad dancers and well-timed pyro underscored the song’s themes of dance-floor desire. As always, Grande’s formidable voice was the star of the show, handling complicated runs with an effortlessness that made her performance feel electric.
WORST: Zendaya’s History Lesson
Best R&B Song presenter Zendaya was given a tough assignment by the showrunners: explaining what R&B is. Her introduction to the category was pedantic – “in the late 1940s, the term ‘rhythm & blues’ was actually created by Billboard magazine to market the genre’s emerging artists” – yet vague: “with a seamless blend of soul, funk, pop, hip-hop and even gospel, rhythm & blues is a category all on its own.” Wiz Khalifa, her co-presenter, gave her little help, chiming in only to announce that singers like Stevie Wonder and Prince both counted as R&B. On top of that, three of the five entries in the category were songs by the Weeknd, so suspense about the potential winner was minimal.
BEST: Pink Takes Flight
These days, Pink can seem less like a pop star these days than an acrobat who sings at awards shows – death-defying feats have become as much a part of her core act as impassioned vocals. While she performed her new single, “Just Like Fire,” a rope apparatus yanked her above the stage and flung her out over the audience. Clad in a complicated outfit of black leather and tulle, and wearing her hair in a severe pink top-knot, Pink looked like a particularly fearsome Power Rangers villain – especially during her finale, when she was lifted skyward again, this time by a pair of clock hands, and the gigantic timepiece behind her burst into flames.
BEST: Nick Jonas, Sibling Superfan
Nick Jonas has no chill – and it’s incredible to watch. When his big brother Joe’s band, DNCE, performed their hit “Cake by the Ocean,” some audience members danced a little, some mouthed along, but Nick put his phone out at arm’s length, taking long, sweeping shots of his sibling as he swiveled and mouthed along with the song’s words. Demi Lovato, sitting next to him, simply smiled as he fanboyed out. Even when Joe traipsed through the crowd toward the end of the tune, most fans awkwardly smiled, but when the camera cut back to Nick, he was happily fist-bumping everyone in sight.
WORST: Lukas Graham’s Ballad Lasts 7 Years
Something must be rotten in the state of Denmark, where pop group Lukas Graham call home. The band came out set up for an emotional performance of their schmaltzy hit “7 Years” with a stage in the round, a stripped-down, street-clothes look, and a singer – Lukas Forchhammer – willing to blink uncontrollably and emote so hard that his face turned tomato red. They even built the song up instrument by instrument, from its piano intro to a rocking outro. But they failed to hit it over the net, as the audience barely moved and cheered obligatorily at the end.
BEST: Shawn Mendes Stitches Together a Hit
Having come up through Vine, a video-sharing service built on six-second clips, Canadian teen dream Shawn Mendes knows how to make pieces of songs work to his advantage. On Sunday night he showed off his ability to make parts of a track into something greater than its whole; he started his stripped-down performance of his Top 10 hit “Stitches” on acoustic guitar before heading into an adjacent room where a piano was set up. He finished off the song there, tickling the ivories while a guitarist added Edge-like riffing in the background. The performance, pause and all, allowed the song to breathe in a way that its peppy recorded version doesn’t.
BEST: Go-Go’s Rock Like Bad Moms Made Good
The Go-Go’s reuniting to perform their sunny signature hit, “We Got the Beat,” felt like a truly poptastic event, with lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle swaying while Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Abby Travis (the bassist after Kathy Valentine left the band) provided effervescent support. Taking the stage after a plug for the movie Bad Moms, this classic lineup of the all-female group – known for epic in-fighting but looking legitimately bubbly on Sunday – came off like actual brassy broads who haven’t lost their edge, especially when the camera cut away to Wiedlin, rocking out on guitar with a bright-blue bob, seeming as punk as ever.