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The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2021 American Music Awards

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Time for an annual reminder: The American Music Awards are about the performances, not the wins. The trophies themselves amount to little more than a rehashing of the year’s charts, but the show still reliably draws A-list talent across genres, especially now that they’re live again. 2021’s ceremony saw stars from BTS to Olivia Rodrigo to Silk Sonic, along with host Cardi B, descend on Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater, just a little over two months before they’ll be back in Los Angeles for a show where the hardware matters a bit more. And when it came to the A-listers, it was a pretty good show — but the AMAs being what they are, audiences also had to suffer through shameless promotional stunts, silly awards-show antics, and something called “the Battle of Boston.” Awards shows: They really are back! Here are the highs, lows, and whoas of the 2021 American Music Awards.

HIGH: The levels of suave on stage during Silk Sonic’s opening performance.

Red velvet suits! Sunglasses indoors! All those vocal runs! Silk Sonic laid on the silky smoothness to open the show with a playful performance of their new single “Smokin’ Out the Window.”

LOW: That mic stand, literally.
Bad Bunny had to duck to accept the first award of the night, for Favorite Latin Album. Then Machine Gun Kelly, long cursed with too-short mic stands, decided he was having none of it while accepting Favorite Rock Artist, and just picked the whole thing up so he could stand properly. Add an adjustable mic stand to next year’s AMAs budget.

WHOA: BTS and Coldplay crowd onto the stage for the first time.

The AMAs’ soundboard operator clearly wasn’t ready to handle eight mics at once, evidenced by the subpar mix for BTS and Coldplay’s debut live performance of “My Universe.” But what the performance lacked technically, it made up for in energy, with the seven BTS members jumping around stage and hyping each other up, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin — an enthusiastic performer in his own right — keeping pace.

HIGH: Olivia Rodrigo channels her hero and stuns.
Olivia Rodrigo got off to a rough start on the awards-show circuit, with a shaky performance of “drivers license” on the Brit Awards. Since then, she’s stuck to the louder fare off her debut, Sour — until the AMAs stage, when she performed current single “traitor,” another ballad. This time, she was stellar, picking up her guitar for a delicate introduction to the song, before joining a full band on a stage covered in flowers. It all had echoes of one of Rodrigo’s biggest inspirations, Taylor Swift, in its blend of theatricality and musicianship. Consider that performance more evidence that the New Artist of the Year winner has been doing her homework.

WHOA: Tyler, the Creator puts on a full show.

At this point, it’s a given: Tyler, the Creator will be a highlight at any awards show where he performs. But it’s still a surprise exactly what trick he’s going to pull out next. At the AMAs, Tyler took the stage in front of a full house and snowy landscape, performing his self-critical CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST cut “MASSA.”

LOW: What is this hometown theme?
The AMAs decided to wedge in some sort of a theme for the night, about artists’ hometowns, one of the most boring possible choices for a music awards-show theme. (And why does it need a theme? The theme is awards!) It mostly just meant the artists and presenters were introduced with their hometowns, but it did give way to some silly stunts, like Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood waxing about their respective hometowns of Macon, Georgia, and Checotah, Oklahoma, before performing … in Nashville. (And Aldean didn’t even leverage it into promo for his new album, coincidentally — or not — named Macon.)

WHOA: Måneskin comes in hot.
Literally — did you see them in those suits? But more than that, as performers, burning up the AMAs stage with their “Beggin’” cover like seasoned rock stars, with guitar solos and snarls.

HIGH: A night for going big.

Tyler set the standard for the night, with other artists following with big, awards-show-level performances, after 2020’s AMAs were remote due to the pandemic. Bad Bunny, Tainy, and Julieta Venegas performed “Lo Siento BB:/” in robotic outfits and masks, with Bad Bunny in a cage hanging from the ceiling. Chlöe took the stage with a troupe of dancers for “Have Mercy,” complete with splits and on-point hairography. Even Walker Hayes had a few dancers for his viral country-pop hit “Fancy Like.”

LOW: More like the Advertising Music Awards.

In lieu of any relevance as an awards show, the AMAs leaned fully into spon-con — from a performed brought to us by Xfinity to copious ABC tie-ins throughout the night. (Not to mention the free advertising Applebee’s got from Walker Hayes’s “Fancy Like” performance.) But most egregiously? Bringing Jennifer Lopez herself to the stage for a cheesy promotional outing for her upcoming romcom Marry Me. Freakin’ J.Lo, one of the hottest celebrities around right now! At least she sounded good.

HIGH: Mickey Guyton sends a loud message.

Mickey Guyton has become an expert at wielding an awards-show stage as a platform, ever since the country singer-songwriter made her solo debut on the ACM Awards just over a year ago. At the AMAs, she performed her rallying cry of a song, “All American” — and it landed as a pointed message at the literal American Music Awards. Not to mention a loud one, thanks to Guyton’s impressive live band, particularly the two backup singers who could match her huge notes. (Extra props to Guyton for performing just days after her baby son had a health scare.)

WHOA: Giveon’s voice really is that great.
Giveon has climbed the charts over the past year thanks to his velvety, emotive baritone. The AMAs saw him take one of his biggest stages yet, and prove that voice sounds even better live during a performance of his hit “Heartbreak Anniversary.”

LOW: The Battle of Boston is just as gimmicky as it sounds.

The night’s hometowns theme seemed to be building toward this: dueling performances between New Edition and New Kids on the Block, two boy bands with roots in Boston. Why them, in 2021? Why Boston, for a show set in L.A.? Why not, the AMAs say! It’s all a bit random and drags on for too long, especially from a show that continues to struggle for relevance. (But for the record, New Edition won this round.)

WHOA: BTS makes it to the top.
No, an American Music Award still doesn’t matter in the long run. But nonetheless, watching BTS’s shocked reaction to their first Artist of the Year win, moments after vibing to New Edition, is a pure shot of joy. Accepting an earlier award, RM described BTS as “a small boy band from Korea,” and the night served as a reminder that despite their charts and cultural dominance, BTS is still working its way to the top. “This whole thing is a miracle,” RM told the crowd after winning the trophy.

LOW: Cardi B stays on script.
Cardi B, awards-show host, began as an exciting prospect because of how surprising and unguarded she is as a celebrity. What wild thing will she say onstage?, everyone wondered. The answer turned out to be not much. Cardi played the hosting game, running through a few bits (including some snoozy backstage filler) and mostly sticking to scripted jokes while relying on her volume. It all amounted to a gig without a single memorable moment, from someone who usually makes memorable moments without even trying. (Her JoJo Siwa fandom came close, but still read as a moment concocted by a writers’ room.) At least she wore some beautiful gowns.

HIGH: BTS still has more to give.
Who else could close out the night? BTS returned to the AMAs stage to perform their hit “Butter” — sans planned guest Megan Thee Stallion, who dropped out of the show days before, but still bringing the house down with spot-on choreography in matching butter-yellow suits. Count it as another win for the group: a smooth ending to a night that had its rough spots.

The Highs, Lows, and Whoas of the 2021 American Music Awards