Despite a bit of a rocky start, the 2016 American Music Awards eventually landed plenty of memorable moments, both musical and political, with Ariana Grande coming home as the night’s big winner as the AMAs Artist of the Year and Zayn, in a post-One Direction era, won New Artist of the Year.
Bruno Mars was electric in his show-opening performance of the funk-infused single “24K Magic,” easily one of the best moments of the entire night. But an opening monologue from co-hosts Gigi Hadid and Jay Pharoah came off a bit awkward early, with some less-than-smooth deliveries and missteps, even as Pharoah brought back his Saturday Night Live-famed Jay Z impersonation and Hadid tried her hand at one based on Melania Trump.
Trump, and the recent U.S. election, came up a few times throughout the show, most notably from Chrissy Teigen (“[John Legend‘s] songs are bigger than either of us, on the heels of what’s been a really interesting interesting f–ked up election for all of us,” introducing her husband’s performance), Green Day (which changed the lyrics of “Bang Bang” to “No Trump / No KKK / No fascist U.S.A.”) and Idina Menzel, who addressed the recent incident involving Vice President-elect Mike Pence at a performance of Hamilton by saying, “Us unsafe, scary theater people won’t be invited to the inauguration. I love you Hamilton!” before announcing Florida Georgia Line as Favorite Country Duo/Group.
Canadians Justin Bieber and Drake were also big winners, with three and four awards, respectively, on the night, while Drake scored a big moment with the debut of a new Apple Music commercial that featured him working out to Taylor Swift and, as with the inverse ad that debuted April 1, falling while lifting weights.
Performance highlights included Mars’ dynamic opener as well as The Weeknd, whose “Starboy” rendition inside a gigantic blue-silver crystal that morphed into a variety of colors was an easy standout. Legend’s “Love Me Now” and the Chainsmokers and Halsey‘s “Closer,” a much improved version on their maligned VMAs performance, also stood out.
There were also several stings and slights, both overt and covert, throughout the evening. Zayn, accepting his New Artist of the Year honor, remarked, “This one just has my name on it, right?” seemingly taking a dig at the insanity surrounding his Directioner past. And Drake, despite being conciliatory and graceful otherwise, took a moment to shout out his fellow nominees in the Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist category Future and Fetty Wap before turning, briefly, serious. “For our genre, I just like to keep things exciting and keep making music,” he said, before stepping into rap beef territory. “More Life is coming soon, and watch how you speak on my name.”
Sting, who accepted his American Music Award of Merit with a career-spanning medley of “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” “Message In a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take,” was plenty appreciative after his performance. “While I may be an Englishman,” he said, shouting out the country that birthed rock and roll, “My musical soul is all American.”
And while there were several more standout performances — Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande’s sultry “Side to Side,” Bieber’s emotional “Let Me Love You” live from overseas, Fifth Harmony‘s fist-bumping “That’s My Girl” and Lady Gaga‘s stripped down “Million Reasons” were all worthy of distinction — arguably the most poignant moment came from Selena Gomez, accepting her award for Favorite Female Artist.
“I think it’s safe to say that most of you know a lot of my life, whether I liked it or not, and I had to stop,” she said, fighting back tears. “Because I had everything, and I was absolutely broken inside. And I kept it all together enough that I would never let you down, but I kept it too much together to where I let myself down. I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram, I want to see what’s in here. I’m not trying to get validation, nor do I need it anymore.
“But if you are broken, you do not have to stay broken,” she continued. “And if that’s anything, whether you respect me or not, that’s one thing you should know about me, is I care about people. And thank you so much for this, this is for you.”
In an up-and-down AMAs, Gomez’s speech became a light of hope and resilience — one that can resonate beyond the glitz and glam of awards shows. In the end, it was the most worthwhile takeaway.