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American Music Awards 2010: Rihanna, Katy Perry, Santana, Ke$ha and all the performances, graded

November 21, 2010 |  8:46 pm

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What follows are instant grades of every performance at tonight's American Music Awards. This post was written off-site from the AMAs at the LAT HQ, and strived to be as fast, coherent and accurate as possible. You have been warned. This post was updated constantly throughout the night, with the last update occurring at 8:53 p.m. PST. 

There may be typos. Photos from the red carpet can be found on The Envelope.

1. Rihanna, "Love the Way You Lie (Part 2)" & "What's My Name" and "Only Girl (In the World)."  And the annual major-label popularity contest that is the American Music Awards gets underway with a shaky start. Rihanna can be captivating, as she is on much of "Rated R." But after a brief few seconds of "Love the Way You Lie," performing above what looked to be a futuristic set of spikes, she drops any sense of contemplation. At the start, it was the dark, sci-fi-like "Tron" atmospheres Rihanna sported on award shows while promoting "Rated R," and though her singing is a bit wobbly, the song strikes such a somber tone that you're on her side. But for Rihanna, being depressed is soooo 2009, and she drops the serious tone for some booty-shaking pop-by-numbers. Hey, it sells better. More curious than either of her recent songs, however, is the handkerchief-like accessory she has used to add a dash of color to her hot pants. Yet clearly that's where the viewers' focus shouldn't be heading. Also, when will award-show producers learn that a medley isn't a good look for anyone? C-.

Enrique Iglesias & Pitbull. "Tonight" & "I Like It." In a performance that should have been sponsored by the Ibiza board of tourism, Iglesias' club anthem gets some added intensity via a drum line. The Grammys, mind you, don't have a lock on marching band-enhanced songs. The medley started with "Tonight," which despite its laser light show and uneventful groove, at least showed off Iglesias' chops. "I Like It," however, does no such thing, going for the electronic-infused David Guetta/Black Eyed Peas overindulgence of synth and sugar. But for sing-along choruses and energy-boosting numbers, one can do worse B-.

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Miley Cyrus, "Forgiveness and Love." A ballad in search of a Garry Marshall film. C-

Diddy Dirty Money, "Coming Home." Another attempt at reincarnation from Sean Combs, featuring the rap mogul flanked by a pair of knock-out women. At least Diddy seems aware that the world is bored with looking at him. This song flirts with contemplation, but it settles for pandering, with its repetitive -- yet gratingly memorable -- "I'm coming home" refrain. It's the kind of obvious, boardroom-crafted hit that feels as if it's going to show up in countless video montages and movie trailers for at least the next 11 months. But perhaps a preemptive D- can save us.

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Kid Rock, "Times Like These." It now appears impossible for Kid Rock to do anything without one wondering where the Budweiser Clydesdales are. Much love to Detroit, but this love letter to Kid Rock's hometown is an eye-rolling groaner. The Michigan friends of Pop & Hiss should save the money that buying Kid Rock's CD would cost and instead spend it on a meal at the Motor City's Slows BarBQ. D.

Black Eyed Peas, "The Time (Dirty Bit)." This is something of a weirdly fascinating mess. The Peas had the oddest set of the night, at least thus far, floating around in giant yellow shadow boxes. There was reason to fear the worst, as this song attempts to rejuvenate "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" into some sort of futuristic techno. Yes, it sounds as bad as that reads. At the very least, it should inspire some curious dances at 2011 proms. Yet the Peas know how to have a good time, and after an ill-advised take on the "Dirty Dancing" staple, the song zigs and zags with digital ping-pong effects. This is a song that takes its partying seriously, almost uncomfortably so. Instead of a chorus, the Black Eyed Peas just chant: "I'M. HAVING. A GOOD. TIME. WITH. YOU." It's the most assertive party song of the year. C+ 

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Katy Perry, "Firework." Like the pyrotechnic toys the song takes its name from, Perry's AMA take is all bombast, no substance. All the cliches needed for a big-event moment were here. Gaggle of singing children? Check (Hey, she can be serious, too! It's not all skimpy outfits and giant fruit). String section? You betcha! At least she didn't sing that "Peacock" thing. 

Justin Bieber, “Pray." Apparently, Justin Bieber didn't see the disaster that was Miley Cyrus' "Wake Up America." Teen pop and socially conscious messages rarely mix well. This one seems aimed at Mom and Pop, a Trojan Horse of a pop tune to disguise Bieber as pure innocence. Don't be fooled, parents. This is a gateway drug. D

Bon Jovi medley. So the AMAs don't have Kanye West, which an award show apparently needs to be remotely interesting, but they do have cartoon lightning bolts scribbled around Richie Sambora's guitar. Someone mastered their Etch A Sketch as a young'un. But hey, the songs --  "What Do You Got?," "You Give Love a Bad Name" and "It's My Life" -- are similarly outdated. The Bon Jovi believers no doubt dug the workmanlike medley. Why it was here, however, who knows? But the lightning bolts were delightfully odd, so a generous C.

Pink, "Raise Your Glass." Bless Pink for championing the "underdogs" and the "dirty little freaks," but her catchy "Greatest Hits ... So Far!!!" throwaway is little more than a PG-rated version of Kanye's "Runaway," but without any of the latter self-awareness. Still, on the musical disaster that is this year's AMAs, this is a high point, especially when Pink mimicked a guitar pluck by shouting "Brrrr! Nrrrrr-nrrrr!" Amid all the overly studied moves of the night, Pink was at least an injection of fun. B.

Ne-Yo, "Libra Scale" medley. The R&B star is the first artist to perform on tonight's AMAs who's actually taking chances, as his fantasy-themed "Libra Scale" is a convoluted concept about superheroes and forbidden love. Or something. Nevertheless, Ne-Yo's ambition is welcome, and songs such as "One in a Million" and "Telekinesis" show what Ne-Yo does best, which is crafting genuine, Michael Jackson-inspired glossy R&B pop ballads. It was a slightly marred appearance, however, as the AMA performance was inter-spliced with clips of a "Libra Scale" film. It didn't allow Ne-Yo to ever really hit a stride, and closer "Beautiful Monster" tried to do too much. B+

Taylor Swift, "Back to December." Here to perform a song she just sang a few weeks ago on the Country Music Assn. Awards, Swift gave a careful and purposeful rendition. With her piano as an accessory, and Christmas lights as her background, Swift officially chopped off her country roots, even sporting some trendy Hollywood bangs. No matter, she's a high concept artist, and each guitar hit in the final  moments of "Back to December" stopped just short of '80s rock ballad status. A brief end-song breakaway into OneRepublic's "Apologize" seemed unnecessary, and was clearly tapped on to give Swift and band a chance to rock out without turning into Def Leppard. There was something oddly off about it, but the whole night has been a pop misfire. B-

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Christina Aguilera, "Express (Burlesque)." As a teaser for the movie, I kind of liked it. It was a low-rent re-creation of Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" work, but Aguilera sounded like a pro, and it was delightfully trashy. Fingers are crossed for a fine midnight movie. C+

Usher & the Swedish House Mafia,"DJ Got Us Falling in Love." Where Ne-Yo is subtle, Usher is in your face. His dance moves were admirable, and the man was drenched in sweat, but he put singing on the back burner. Save for the pyrotechnics, it was one of the more bare performances of the night. The song has been inescapable, and if you're still watching this thing, you likely know the words. Usher wanted to give a performance rather than deliver a song. C+

Train, "Marry Me" and "Hey, Soul Sister." Credit Train for finding a second career scoring TV commercials, but I can't do it. Singer Patrick Monahan somehow manages to look tough, slick, goofy and sincere all at once. His pants sparkled, his hair didn't move, and his cheeks were perfectly chiseled. Meanwhile, “Marry Me" and "Hey, Soul Sister" are cotton soft, allowing Monahan to flash a puppy dog smile. There's something alternately too-cool and too-earnest about Train. This says more about me than the band, perhaps, but they come off like the kind of dudes who learned how to play "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" for the sole purpose of stealing your girlfriend. D

 Ke$ha, "We R Who We R." Ke$ha's "Girls Gone Wild" chic has been replaced with the more in-vogue robotic look, and she was Auto-Tuned to the point of being indistinguishable from anyone else. "Hot and dangerous," she sang, bragging again about getting trashed and being dumb. She briefly sported a guitar, tossing it around her waist as if it were a scarf. But Ke$ha's pop's bad girl, right? After all, the word "hate" was X'ed-out on the back of the guitar's body. So ... she's anti-hate? A stance has been taken, world! I hope New Kids on the Block don't come out wearing pro-hate shirts. There's going to be brawling. D

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Santana & Gavin Rossdale, "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Alright, American Music Awards: WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON? This is quite possibly the most bizarre award show in recent memory. Why was Bon Jovi here? Why are the New Kids on the Block here? Why...why...why FOR THE LOVE OF GOD were Santana & Gavin Rossdale allowed to cover T. Rex? This was a disaster -- a four minute guitar solo that went nowhere, sludging along as Rossdale's overwrought vocals scraped and clawed at the verses like a shovel being dragged on dry concrete.

Briefly, the band dipped into the Talking Heads' "Take Me to the River," just to see, I imagine, whether it were possible to create something so gag-worthy that it was actually kind of amusing. It wasn't. The energy of the T. Rex original was completely sapped by Santana's noodling. Hey, the world gets it, Santana can play the guitar, but "Bang a Gong" is attitude and riffing, and Santana and Rossdale came off as a pair of middle-aged suburbanites trying to rock out at the family reunion. An embarrassment for everyone involved. F

Backstreet Boys & New Kids on the Block medley. I surrender, American Music Awards. Sell me the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys nostalgia tour. You win. Give me Justin Bieber and Ke$ha instead of Kanye West and Lady Gaga. Remind me of the power of a Bon Jovi arena anthem. You have worn me down. Hands are behind my back ready to be cuffed. ABC, I will do whatever you say. I will watch a 24-hour marathon of "Cougar Town." I will get coffee and pastries every morning for the entire crew of "The View." Just please, make this be the final performance. Please. F. 

-- Todd Martens

RELATED: 

American Music Awards 2010: A family-friendly show is free of controversy

Photos: American Music Awards 2010 red carpet

On the American Music Awards red carpet: Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block talk touring

Video: Checking in with Taio Cruz, Trey Songz, Gavin Rossdale and Mike Posner

Best & Worst: American Music Awards 2010

Images: Rihanna (Associated Press); Miley Cyrus (Associated Press); Black Eyed Peas (Getty Images); Katy Perry (Reuters); Santana & Gavin Rossdale (Associated Press)

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