2018 AMAs Recap: Taylor Swift Makes History, Cardi B Lights Up the Stage

Whatever “bad” thing Taylor Swift did, she’s getting handsomely rewarded for it, from recently breaking her own record for the highest-grossing U.S. tour by a woman to cleaning up at the American Music Awards on Tuesday night (Oct. 9).

The pop star, who opened the show with a choreo-heavy, snake-filled performance of “I Did Something Bad” from last year’s reputation, topped Whitney Houston’s record for the most AMA wins by a female artist in the program’s history, taking home four trophies (tour of the year, favorite album — pop/rock, favorite female artist — pop/rock and artist of the year) and bringing her grand total to 23. 

“Every single time [I win an award], it means something different,” Swift said while accepting the artist of the year award, the final honor of the night. “[This one] represents encouragement and motivation for me to be better and work harder and try to make you guys proud.”

She also noted that AMA winners are determined by public voting, and referenced her recent Internet-breaking candidate endorsement at the end of her speech: “You know what else is voted on by the people? The mid-term elections on November 6. Get out and vote.” (Earlier in the evening, presenter Billy Eichner paused his awarding of favorite adult contemporary artist to reference her endorsement as well, telling viewers to go vote "like Taylor Swift told you to.")

Her (literally) explosive performance of “I Did Something Bad” set the tone for the evening, not just when it came to pyrotechnics -- though there was plenty of that, thanks to Twenty One Pilots’ exploding-car set piece and Cardi B’s firework pinwheels -- but also when it came to women dominating the show: Most of the evening’s lead performers were female artists, women provided most of the show’s most eye-catching performances, and -- even outside of Swift -- they took him many of the key awards, from Cardi (favorite artist rap/hip-hop) to Camila Cabello (favorite pop/rock song, video of the year, new artist of the year and best collaboration).

Many of music’s biggest male superstars were also hardly present, in more ways than one. Sometimes they were literally not present: Panic! at the Disco covered “Bohemian Rhapsody” via satellite from Australia. At other times, they cultivated a more ghostly vibe on purpose: Twenty One Pilots’ dramatic, ominously lit set-up for “Jumpsuit” emphasized the music, not the artists making it — and still ended up being one of the evening’s highlights.

Still, a few pop juggernauts barely made an impact on the evening’s programming despite their omnipresence in the culture: Neither Drake nor Ed Sheeran attended the show or won any of the awards they were nominated for. And one of the most notable winners of the evening was actually a posthumous win: XXXTentacion won the award for favorite album -- soul/R&B, which was accepted by his mother, Cleopatra, who gave a brief speech. 

The performances were a mix of the spectacular and the subtle. Cardi B teamed up with J. Balvin and Bad Bunny to turn the AMAs into Latin paradise, complete with palm trees, during “I Like It.” Dua Lipa led audiences into a glow-in-the-dark rave with a medley of “One Kiss,” her hit collab with Calvin Harris, and “Electricity,” her recent team-up with Silk City (a.k.a. Mark Ronson and Diplo). Jennifer Lopez — following her show-stopping MTV Video Music Awards performance in August — performed her new song "Limitless" amid a stormy backdrop and a large phalanx of dancers. And Ciara and Missy Elliott reunited for a pulse-spiking medley of “Level Up” and “Dose” that ended with a marching band storming the stage, and could have doubled as a work-out class for anyone trying to follow along with Ciara’s moves. (Even Cardi B got to her feet to groove along by the performance’s end.)

Other artists, like Mariah Carey and Camila Cabello, kept it low-key: The former, debuting new single “With You” for the first time on TV, stood mostly still in an elaborate pink dress that opened up to reveal a small squad of dancers. Later in the evening, Cabello took the stage backed by a mini orchestra to perform the ballad “Consequences,” which the singer revealed on Instagram this week is the final single from her debut album, Camila.

Cabello’s performance was one of several that felt like victory laps for a new artists who recently graduated from the JV squad of pop stardom to varsity players. Cabello’s star-making solo album arrived in early January of this year, and by this time last year, “Havana” was barely a month old. Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” was still a few months away from its Hot 100 peak last fall, and she’s also closing the chapter on her debut album with a deluxe edition (featuring both “One Kiss” and “Electricity”) out later this month.

Meanwhile, Ella Mai, still new to the awards-show circuit, performed this year’s runaway hit “Boo’d Up” ahead of her debut album dropping this Friday. And then there’s Khalid: At the 2017 AMAs, the then-newcomer got a profile-raising boost when he joined Imagine Dragons for a joint performance; this time, the singer (who took home the award for Favorite Male Artist — Soul/R&B) lent his star power to producer Benny Blanco, now releasing music under his own name, in Blanco’s first awards show performance ever. (Well, “performance” may be generous -- Blanco mostly lounged around a recreation of his home studio while Khalid and fellow “Eastside” vocalist Halsey did the heavy lifting.)

Despite the younger-leaning programming, the American Music Awards did devote one of the most important performance slots to a history-making icon: Aretha Franklin. For the grand finale, the show recruited soul legend Gladys Knight as well as Ledisi, Mary Mary and Donnie McClurkin for a performance that paid tribute to Franklin’s gospel roots. It's not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect on a show like the AMAs, where Gen-Z tastes and top 40 favorites seem to rule, but following Madonna’s much-criticized Aretha tribute at the VMAs, this one wisely stuck to just the music -- and pumped as much energy into the show as anything involving flames and explosions. At the 2018 AMAs, only the divas got the first and last word.

American Music Awards 2018