With a savvy mix of first-timers – Olivia Rodrigo, Mickey Guyton, Måneskin – and veteran superstars including Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Underwood, the 2021 American Music Awards offered a performance lineup targeting multiple generations.
In a twist this year, the AMAs brought some of the artists to their roots, as Underwood and Jason Aldean teamed up in Nashville, where they launched their careers, and Kane Brown performed from the HBCU Tennessee State University in his native state.
As it is with any three-hour event of this nature, there were some acts that captured attention while others failed to do so.
Here’s how the all the AMA performers fared, from worst to first.
16. Coldplay, BTS and ‘My Universe.
This was a terrible performance. This was the first live performance for Coldplay and BTS on their sweet hit of affection, but if they’re always going to sound this awful, it’s OK if it’s their last. We knew that the vocals had been recorded live. However, they were out of tune and overpowered other members. No amount of bouncing from eager frontman Chris Martin or the disciplined BTS could salvage this wreck, made even worse by goofy jumping around as flash pots exploded at the merciful end of the performance.
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15. Walker Hayes – “Fancy Like”,
His No. 1 hit, “Travelman Country Singer-Songwriter”, was a success because he capitalized on the dancing craze. With a gaggle of hip-shakers limber-limbed following Hayes around on the stage, he became viral’s No. 1. Punctuating the rudimentary ditty with “whoos” and venturing into the artists’ lounge in front of the stage to sing to his wife, Hayes made the most of what has all of the ingredients of a novelty song.
14. Chlöe, ‘Have Mercy’
In a cutout-filled white outfit, Chloe Bailey, of Chloe x Halle fame (apparently you graduate to an umlaut upon going solo) traversed the stage with a troupe of female dancers. In September she also performed her first single at VMAs. However, this time she added twerking to the mix and did a split.
13. Kane Brown, ‘One Mississippi’
The newly minted star in arena presented his song, released last summer and beamed from HBCU Tennessee State University. It features more country elements that his previous crossover work. Brown, dressed in a plaid pullover and jeans and powered by a clapalong chorus, walked down the sidewalk to meet fans and exchange lyrics.
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12. Tainy with Bad Bunny & Julieta Venegas: ‘Lo SientoBB./’
The world premiere performance of the song from Latin music producer Tainy’s forthcoming album, “Data,” took a futuristic approach. Bad Bunny perched inside a complicated-looking contraption that we’re sure has an official name, a white hood with a camera lens covering his eyes, while Venegas’ face appeared on a video tablet as she sat behind the piano. Tainy, meanwhile, hung behind his nearby keyboard in a plume of smoke, plinking out the melody to the song’s shuffling groove.
11. Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean, ‘If I Didn’t Love You’
Performing from Nashville as an ode to the twosome’s professional hometown, the country powerhouses blended vocals on their hit from Aldean’s new album, “Macon” (named for his real hometown in Georgia). Aldean stayed seated behind a piano, while Underwood in a thigh-baring black gown belted nearby with her usual zeal.
10. Tyler, the Creator, “Massa”
The rapper performed in shorts and socks, while his feet were pulled up. As he dug into his deep lyrics – “Mom was in the shelter when ‘Yonkers’ dropped…When I got her out, that’s the moment I knew I made it” – the camera crept closer, allowing viewers to feel his intensity. At the end of the song, taken from his new album, “Call Me If You Get Lost,” a scooter pulled up, Tyler picked up a case, hopped on, and zoomed away.
9. Mickey Guyton is a ‘All American’.
In thigh-high, black boots, Guyton, country’s star, projected her national anthem for inclusion on the American flag. Guyton performed the song with a loud voice and an engaging smile. It is full of simple lyrics about unity. Guyton seemed genuinely moved to perform as she offered her thanks to everyone and blew kisses.
8. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Traitor’
The AMAs debut was simple for the rising star. She played acoustic guitar to the Swift-ian tune. “It took you two weeks/To go off and date her/Guess you didn’t cheat/But you’re still a traitor,” Rodrigo emoted as her all-female band kicked in behind her. Projecting plenty of hurt and emotion, she scaled octaves and, thanks to the simple arrangement, proved why she’s likely about to get christened in this week’s Grammy nominations.
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7. Zoe Wees, “Girls Like Us”
The 19-year-old German singer whose music spotlights mental health issues presented the “Song of Soul” moment on the show. Bandanna-clad Wees spoke with heartfelt honesty about her feelings of confusion and loneliness in a voice that was smiling with grit.
6. Jennifer Lopez, “On My Way”,
The always-glamorous multi-hyphenate took the unpretentious route for the new single form her upcoming film, “Marry Me.” Backed by an orchestra and with the assistance of a cool costume tweak behind massive video screens, Lopez crooned the feel-good ballad with conviction. The song’s sweeping bridge and honeyed vocals make Lopez a perfect fit.
5. Giveon, ‘Heartbreak Anniversary’
Like a modern-day James Ingram or Ne-Yo, the R&B singer, who gained prominence on songs by Drake (“Chicago Freestyle”) and Justin Bieber (“Peaches”), is very much a man who knows his way around a sensual ballad. As he walked down the walkways and hit some falsetto notes, the crowd roared with a chorus of squeals that threatened to drown his soft vocals.
4. Silk Sonic, ‘Smokin’ Out the Window’
The pet project of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak opened the show with their current throwback hit. The pair took turns gliding around the stage – Mars sporting his omnipresent sunglasses – in their burnt orange velvet suits, joined by two backup singers to give the performance a Temptations feel. Nothing about Silk Sonic is particularly inventive, but it’s hard not to appreciate their dedication to smooth.
3. BTS, ‘Butter’
Gliding around the stage in, naturally, yellow suits, the big winners at the AMAs invigorated the crowd – including a very involved Joey McIntyre – as they tossed off their radio smash with seeming effortlessness. The group sounded amazing with their fluid dance moves and heavenly vocals as they traded vocals. Megan Thee Stallion, who was supposed to be performing the “Butter” remix with BTS on Saturday, pulled out due to “unexpected personal matters.”
2. Måneskin, ‘Beggin’ ‘
Offering their global smash for their U.S. awards show debut – a remake of The Four Seasons’ 1967 hit – the Italian rockers dressed for the occasion in snazzy black tuxes. With serrated guitar, a touch of glam and much European charisma, the quartet (whose name means “moonlight” in Danish) injected a much-appreciated dash of rock ‘n roll into the show. Flickering strobe lights coupled with flying hair augmented the vintage hit’s catchy chorus.
1. New Editions and New Kids on the Block
In a segment built for nostalgia, two veteran boy band behemoths from Boston – New Kids on the Block and New Edition – didn’t so much “battle” as advertised, but provided 10 minutes of unfettered joy. NKOTB hit the block first with “The Right Stuff,” clad in various forms of black and dancing with precision. They cleared the stage for New Edition, nattily attired in colorful fedoras and pea coats, the sextet grooving to “Candy Girl.” Both groups – which featured original members – sounded crisp and looked well-rehearsed. The dancing crowd included a shot of BTS, who were surely thinking, “There we are in 25 years.” Tradeoffs between the groups included “Step By Step” and “Hangin’ Tough” for NKOTB and “Mr. Telephone Man” and “If It Isn’t Love” for New Edition, as well as a silky mashup of “Please Don’t Girl” and “Is This The End.” Absolutely no one was surprised to hear that the adeptly choreographed staging was a teaser for a 2022 tour with the two pop powerhouses. We’re all in.