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Ladies' night at the AMAs [UPDATED]

November 22, 2009 | 11:14 pm

Sure, the guys performed on the show Sunday evening, but it was the women who blazed.

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Are guys even making relevant pop music right now? That's a ridiculous question, obviously, but after Sunday's American Music Awards telecast, it seems almost reasonable. Though plenty of men performed during this roundup of both trending and reliable chart toppers, the show's heat emanated from the feminine sphere.

[FOR THE RECORD: A review of the American Music Awards in Monday's Calendar section incorrectly said Whitney Houston sang "I Turn to You" on the show. Houston  sang "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."]

Lady Gaga playing a blazing piano, Whitney Houston giving a touchingly rough-edged vocal performance, a startled Taylor Swift grabbing the top prize from the spectral grip of Michael Jackson -- this show wasn't just another ladies' night: It marked a notable shift in American pop music.

The AMAs always offer spectacle, in part because the awards themselves feel less meaningful than either the Grammys or more genre-specific fetes like the Country Music Assn. Awards. Won in a public vote after nominations are made according to radio airplay and retail sales, these prizes always have seemed somehow less prestigious than those determined by industry insiders or artistic peers.

What's fun about the AMAs is the breadth of the show, as top draws in many genres work to generate the most glitz in what amounts to a pop free-for-all.

This year, rock bands such as Daughtry and Green Day played and sang earnestly, and Eminem (assisted by 50 Cent) and Jay-Z (partnering with Alicia Keys) both rapped at the top of their game. Yet these moments felt like standard fare on a buffet overflowing with more scintillating choices.

It's not that rock or rap no longer speak to the mainstream; Eminem's album rather quietly became one of the year's bestsellers, as did the latest from Kings of Leon, who were nominated for artist of the year yet did not perform Sunday evening.

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But pop's current mood -- glamorous and emotionally open, category-busting and very fluid -- reflects qualities associated with the feminine. Authenticity and rawness, leather jackets and guitars and freestyle rhymes still have their allure, but they're overwhelmed by costume, dance, spectacular singing and highly stylized, melodramatic confession.

At the AMAs, the most successful performances came from women who are pushing Top 40 music into edgier musical and emotional territory. Several -- including the one-named wonders Gaga, Rihanna and Shakira -- combined Madonna-style dance routines with elements that were both futuristic and grounded in good old-fashioned flash and fire. Literally, in Lady Gaga's case.

When she moved from her more dance-centered first song into a ballad, she did so by smashing through a glass wall and sitting down at that fiery keyboard, where she proceeded to smash bottles as she sang. (Now, that's heavy metal!)

Rihanna stepped off of a carnival-style Wheel of Death to sing her medley; Shakira led what looked like an army of cyborgs as she rapped, sang and shook her trademark hips. And though Jennifer Lopez didn't execute her big comeback number that successfully -- she took a tumble while performing the new single "Louboutins," setting the Twittersphere afire -- give her credit for trying on an androgynous and newly tough style in her boxer's outfit and drag-king hairstyle.

The night's most exciting new face (and voice) was also female. The French singer and songwriter SoShy made a fierce and sultry duet partner for Timbaland, debuting his single "Morning After Dark"; she overshadowed the song's third vocalist, Nelly Furtado, not an easy task for a newcomer.

Other artists worked hard but didn't make such a fresh impression. Carrie Underwood sounded great on her middling single "Cowboy Casanova," but her bordello-inspired routine was too much like the one she recently did on the CMAs. Janet Jackson, opening the show, seemingly lifted a medley from her recent tour (and obviously lip-synched).

Mary J. Blige and Kelly Clarkson both kept things simple and were excellent as always, but excellence isn't always memorable when it comes to a spectacle like the AMAs.

The artist who made the biggest splash -- one that risked being a belly flop -- was a man, Adam Lambert, who closed the show with a very sexy, rambunctious reading of his single "For Your Entertainment" that included tongue-kissing, crotch-grabbing and plenty of orgiastic dance moves.

Lambert's vocals were sometimes off, but his all-out plunge into erotic exhibitionism was very entertaining and pretty freaking rock 'n' roll. Eminem and 50 Cent uttered obscenities that were bleeped out on the telecast; it wasn't possible to hide Lambert's in-your-face routine.

It was a love-it-or-hate-it moment in a night full of them. But one performance was wholly admirable: Houston's delivery of the ballad "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," from the comeback album that's not yet quite returned the original blockbuster diva to the height of her glory.

Standing still at the microphone, as if to resist the pull of all the gyrating younger women who've moved into the pop spotlight since her prime, Houston sang without trying to hide the cracks in her voice or the emotional struggles that created those fissures. At one point, she paused, as if to cry -- and then produced her clearest notes of the night. It was a truly old-fashioned diva moment.

And it was timeless, reminding everyone present that even a pop alpha female must show depth within the glitter she generates.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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Top photo: Whitney Houston / Getty; Middle photo: Lady Gaga /AP

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