2009 American Music Awards: Grading the performances
Grading the performances at the 2009 American Music Awards, typos and all.
Janet Jackson. So, supposedly the American Music Awards were going to open with a performance from Janet, and that's technically what happened. Except Janet's performance was largely a commercial for her "Number Ones," in which the singer, in a tan outfit that looked like it was ripped straight from the racks at REI, performed a medley of her hits. Imagine going to Amazon.com and clicking on a bunch of song samples from her two-disc set. That's largely what this performance was -- it's "Miss You Much"! and now it's "What Have You Done for Me Lately"! -- and if you were a Janet fan, you surely enjoyed this swift little medley. It was a safe and solid opening, and it gets a slight bonus for focusing entirely on Janet and not becoming another Michael tribute, so B-.
Daughtry. Boom! Nothing ignites the excitement of a three-hour award show like a mid-tempo rock ballad from heartland rockers Daughtry. "No, there's no life after you," leader Chris Daughtry sings through gritted teeth, trying to muster some importance out of these tepid lyrics and lightly strummed electric guitars. This type of song is typically saved for the moments during an arena show when a band says, "This one is for the ladies," and everyone goes and buys a hot dog. D
Shakira. Rather than perform "She Wolf," Shakira opts for her more recent single "Give It Up to Me," and turns in a performance worthy of Broadway's "STOMP." A little militant, and a little bit "Single Ladies," Shakira's minimalistic outfit matched the sparseness of the song. Her dancing didn't match the oddness of "She Wolf," but it was aggressive, and put the viewer on the defensive. B
Keith Urban. In case Shakira was too risque for you, don't worry -- the AMAs went right back to PG with Urban's good-time country rocker, "Kiss a Girl." The AMAs have gone back and forth between sexy and middle-of-the-road thus far, and Urban, sporting a slightly shiny Western shirt, kept things simple and to the point. "Say goodbye to all the rules," he sings in the song, but this country-crossover rocker never strays from them. B-
Kelly Clarkson. Yes, she had an album this year -- don't forget! -- and she sold it well tonight with a solid take on "Already Gone." Looking glamorous and sounding terrific, Clarkson was a classic throwback, a reminder of a time when "American Idol" didn't make all artists think they had to over-sing. B+
Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. Dressed all spiffy in their finest formal wear, Keys and Jay-Z performed their pandering "Empire State of Mind." This was fine the first time we heard it on an award show -- at the MTV Video Music Awards, and it was fine at the World Series, but enough. It's worn out its welcome. Yes, we know New York is cool. Bars are open late and the public transportation is swell and all, but performing this love letter to New York in Los Angeles? We're tired of it. No more songs about cities. D Side-note: The introduction by Alex Rodriguez gets an F. And was he chewing gum? He's unprofessional off the field too.
The Black Eyed Peas. The Los Angeles popsters received a showcase performance, getting to offer live takes of "Meet Me Halfway" and "Boom Boom Pow," two of the most ubiquitous songs of the year. Viewers were reminded of this fact repeatedly, with their sales constantly hyped, and the Black Eyed Peas declaring themselves "the new kings" at the end of their performance. On record, "Meet Me Halfway" is all electronic futurism. Live, it was a bit messier, but there was plenty of eye candy in this extended performance. Crazy wigs and stereo outfits and some crowd-pleasing samples of C+C Music Factory and Nirvana. It was all pop-culture nonsense, and that's what the Black Eyed Peas excel at. B+
Rihanna. Ne-Yo told us that the "R" in her "Rated R" stands for either "remarkable" or "really, really sexy." Not quite sure if it completely hit both of those notes, but it was definitely over too soon. Performing in a sort of sci-fi junkyard, Rihanna came onstage in what could have been a torture device. Like Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna is definitely tapping into the cyborg pop mentality that's all the rage at the moment (nice spikes on the shoulders). She gave us snippets of two songs from "Rated R" -- "Wait Your Turn" and "Hard" -- but it would have been better to just stick with one. To her credit, she sounded sharp, metallic and owned the songs. The night's best performance thus far. A-
Carrie Underwood. Was it really just a week ago that this song was performed on the Country Music Assn. Awards? There were fewer nods to Nashville tonight, or maybe it was just too hard to focus on the slide guitar when Underwood was sporting some kind of half-dress, half-lingerie outfit, and the band was nowhere to be seen. This wasn't about the song; it was about her strutting around onstage. C
Lady Gaga. Coming onstage like a creature from "Pan's Labyrinth," Lady Gaga was all twitchy masked dance moves for this two-song medley. That was a good thing, as her "Bad Romance" is a bit of a mess, ultimately falling back on the retro-synth choruses that Gaga can't resist. There was broken glass and a flaming piano (no flaming bras, sadly), and Gaga showed off her pipes on "Speechless" as she got violent with some water bottles. Gaga makes for entertaining television, no doubt, but at some point she's going to need more than just crazy masks, pryo and fake blood. C+
Mary J. Blige. Her "I Am" isn't a knock-out on par with "I Can See in Color," but it's the type of ballad Blige can perfectly deliver in her sleep. On a night were futuristic flash and bare skin were all the rage, Blige kept it lovingly old school. B
Jennifer Lopez. Given an elaborate stage with a fake boxing ring, Lopez was hyped as "the main event." She wasn't. Her "comeback" single, "Louboutins," is a silly little trifle, and that may even be too complimentary. She sounded Auto-Tuned for the entire performance, and the title is a ridiculous word to repeat multiple times in a pop song. But it'll sell some shoes this holiday season, so maybe some retailers are stoked. D
Whitney Houston. She received a standing ovation, and it was deserved. With "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," Houston hollered and showed a bit of a rasp. If her instrument isn't what it once was, it can still silence a room. Compared to Blige a few songs ago, Houston was perhaps a bit over the top, but she belted until she was nearly out of breath. It was a powerful moment. But the angelic background lighting? Could have done without that. A-
Eminem and 50 Cent. The censors worked overtime in this collaboration for "Crack a Bottle," as there was more silence than music. That about sums up the performance as well, as this was all offensive swagger. But it didn't shock -- it was simply kind of annoying. D
Timbaland, SoShy and Nelly Furtado. This song needed a little more Nelly Furtado and a little less Timbaland, but the producer-rapper certainly keeps good company. This slinky dance-floor cut excels when newbie SoShy and Furtado trade vocals, and hits a bit of a wall when Timbaland controls the microphone. B
Green Day. Here to perform recent single "21 Guns." It's the least exciting of the singles from "21st Century Breakdown," but it does show off the band's more theatrical, serious side. With all its stops and starts, and on-the-sleeve crooning from Billie Joe Armstrong, it certainly feels important, but it never quite takes off. B-
Adam Lambert. You wouldn't have seen this on "American Idol," a show that has broadcast its share of monstrosities. Borrowing some of Rihanna's shoulder spikes and torture devices, Lambert dragged women around onstage and got frisky with dudes, all in what seemed like an overly calculated way to show himself off as some sort of glam-gone-dangerous artist -- and to instantly distance Lambert from the family-friendly "Idol" fare. It all would have been forgivable if the song actually had a hook. Lambert has the voice, and a charisma that stands out in today's pop music landscape, but this was provocation by the numbers. D. -Todd Martens
Photos: Shakira, Lady Gaga and Carrie Underwood. Credits: Associated Press