Still, of course, there were zeniths and nadirs, moments when not even the breathless pep of a Jennifer Lopez Kohl’s commercial (what will she do next?) could bring light back into my Sunday night. Here’s a breakdown of some of the best and worst things that happened last night.
1. Ariana Grande continues winning both the vocal game and the likability game.
Oh, man. I love Ariana Grande so much. With a performance of “Tattooed Heart” (maybe the best song on her debut Yours Truly) featuring vocals for days, Grande continued proving herself as one of the year’s breakout stars; she manages to seem at once demure and self-possessed, and it’s a winsome combination. While accepting her award for Best New Artist of the Year, her breakneck, delirious speech was equally adorable.
2. The Mumfordication of male pop might be a good thing.
So Justin Timberlake wasn’t on good behavior all night (more on that later), and his persona is quickly becoming, uh, problematic, but man, he still knows on how to put a good show, and when tackling rootsy-country number “Drink You Away” with an impressively large band, he looked and sounded great. Likewise, when One Direction performed their folk-hued single “Story Of My Life,” they sounded like an actual band; it was one of their most mature performances to date.
3. Christina Aguilera made you her backup singer.
Perhaps realizing that this year’s appearance could never compare to last year’s epic, disastrous bout of #LotusPromo, Christina Aguilera scaled it back and stayed humble for her performance this year, where she turned her “featuring Christina Aguilera” credit on A Great Big World‘s power ballad “Say Something” into a starring role. Note the effortlessness with which she pushes singer-songwriter/pianist Ian Axel into the background so she can be, y’know, bathed in heavenly white spotlight, adorned with a crown of braids, slowing off her newly slender curves. Last night, for once, justice was truly served.
4. Jennifer Lopez’s tribute to Celia Cruz was sincerely great.
It occurred to me last night that Jennifer Lopez is kind of like Beyonce without much musical talent: She’s an electrifying performer with an incredible sense of showmanship (even if she’s not particularly gifted vocally) who never gets as much credit as she’s due for consistently delivering high-octane performances — as she did last night paying tribute to Celia Cruz in a long and exhilarating visual spectacle that was probably the best segment of the night.
5. Lady Gaga and R. Kelly make such a dazzlingly weird couple.
I’ve been really tough on the ARTPOP era, and I thought Lady Gaga and R. Kelly‘s performance of “Do What U Want” on Saturday Night Live was offensively bad, but I was totally enamored with the goofy self-consciousness of their rendition last night, which went from hilarious theatrics to seriously impressive vocals and dance moves to the kind of utterly unhinged (if thuddingly obvious) social commentary of which Gaga is so fond. Even when she’s maddeningly literal, consider the look in her eyes in that final act of the performance, when it’s just her and the headlines: You can tell that she really means it.
1. Pitbull is so embarrassing.
The stomach-turning casual misogyny of that opening sequence with the four dancers, his grimly unfunny jokes, the self-congratulatory remarks about how he’s the embodiment of the American dream. It’s all so awful. Please, Pitbull, just stop. As I said last night, the only thing Pitbull has any business hosting is a staff meeting at a suburban Zumiez.
2. We Need To Talk About Katy Perry.
The songstress’ opening performance of new single “Unconditionally” was lavish, gorgeous, and impressively executed, but it’s also sort of infuriating that after so many conversations about Miley Cyrus‘ supposed minstrelsy at the VMAs or Selena Gomez wearing a bindi while performing “Come & Get It,” pop divas are still blindly hurtling forward with performances featuring unapologetic cultural appropriation. Katy, it’s not the look.
3. And while we’re on the subject of racism…
Was there anything more awkward than that hideous moment where Justin Timberlake impersonated Rihanna’s mother’s Bajan accent? No. No, there was not. Justin Timberlake, you can flirt with Taylor Swift all you want, but you can’t do that.
4. TLC performing with Lil Mama is not okay.
I realize that Lil Mama just depicted Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes in that VH1 biopic, but putting her on stage in Left-Eye’s place to perform “Waterfalls” felt somehow blasphemous — it just didn’t sit right with me, like watching some weird shadow world version of TLC circa 2013.
5. Miley Cyrus, the leotard, and the cat hologram.
Here’s the problem with what Miley Cyrus did last night: She yet again put the emphasis on a stunt (a crying, singing cat hologram and a really, really tight bikini leotard) rather than on her vocals, which were gorgeously scratchy and pained. Everyone gets that she’s edgy, and at this point, each new absurdity just elicits a new exhausted sigh. If the performance had been a little more subdued, people might actually be talking about her musical talent.
Watch Brandi Cyrus interview her little sister Miley for SpinMedia:
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