The Billboard Music Awards went down this Sunday night (May 20) with big wins for Taylor Swift, Luis Fonsi, Khalid and many more, and plenty of powerful moments inspired by recent real-world events.
And of course, there were great performances: duets that spanned generations, breakout moments from solo stars looking to go next-level, and icons proving why they’re every bit worthy of the descriptor. Here are Billboard‘s ten favorite performances from the night that was.
10. Ed Sheeran, “Galway Girl”
Beamed in via satellite from Dublin, Ireland, the energy from Ed Sheeran’s rendition of Divide cut “Galway Girl” was still fairly palpable, as Ed’s racing vocal and frenzied acoustic delivery carried the song with impressive energy, despite not having a rhythm track as accompaniment. Of course, it helps when you have an entire sea of ecstatic fans singing your words back to you — the ones who can keep up, anyway.
9. Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, “The Middle”
You couldn’t help but wonder if the three artists might’ve tried reinventing their 2018 smash the way the way Zedd and Alessia Cara did with their stripped-down “Stay” at the American Music Awards last year. But when you’ve got a pop song as perfect as “The Middle,” sometimes you’re best off just leaving well enough alone, and that’s what they did with their emphatic rendition of the top 5 hit, with Maren Morris’ soaring vocal proving that whatever circuitous route it took to end up with her on the song, it was clearly worth the trouble.
8. Shawn Mendes & Khalid, “Youth”
Mendes & Khalid’s splendidly intertwining vocals made their collab a far more powerful experience live than on record, particularly once they were joined by the Marjory Stoneman choir for the song’s rousing climax. The “Protect Our Children” message on Khalid’s shirt was also undeniably powerful, though actually not as much so as the titular message on Mendes’ and the choir’s sweatshirts, a powerful one-word phrase that almost serves as its own statement of defiance in today’s age of such relentless teenage tragedy.
7. Kelly Clarkson, 2017-’18 Hits Medley
If Ariana Grande’s stunning opening number didn’t get BBMAs viewers back in the mood for music celebration, Kelly Clarkson’s monologue-ending medley of recent smashes — from the wide-ranging likes of Kendrick Lamar, Imagine Dragons and an overcome-with-disbelief Maren Morris — certainly got the show right on track. The highlights from the vocal powerhouse’s typically room-shaking performance were many, but hard to beat Taylor Swift in the audience, miming along to her own “Look What You Made Me Do” chorus, fingernail-check and all.
6. Khalid & Normani, “Love Lies”
Few presences are as genial at a pop awards show as Khalid, whose soothing voice, blinding smile and shirt-half-tucked casualness make every performance of his compelling. But the star-making turn at the BBMAs performance of “Love Lies” was undoubtedly Normani’s, looking like Beyoncé with the hallway poses of her intro, equally scorching with her moves and vocals, and managing to fill the stage as much on her own as she ever did with her fellow 5Hers.
5. Salt-n-Pepa, “Shoop”/”Let’s Talk About Sex”/”Push It”/”Whatta Man” (feat. En Vogue)
Keeping the vibe alive from Janet Jackson’s Icon performance,Salt-n-Pepa took the stage to perform an anniversary-honoring medley of their four best-remembered hits: a quartet of still-vital pop and hip-hop classics that brought such sparkling, brightly colored fun to the BBMAsstage that Kelly Clarkson had to get in at the end for a last-second cameo. Between the trio, En Vogue and Janet, it was sorta hard not to be left wishing for an entire show of ’93 throwbacks: Where are K7 and The Breeders when you need ’em?
4. BTS, “Fake Love”
“Let’s welcome the biggest boy band in the world!” offered Kelly Clarkson by way of BTS introduction. If that status wasn’t clear from the screaming in the audience every time the group’s presence was even suggested, it was from their performance of new single “Fake Love,” an immaculately choreographed, energetically delivered rendition with the fans filling in the gaps at every possible opportunity. The group’s momentum has only continued to skyrocket since their coming-out win at the 2017 BBMAs, and it’s not decelerating anytime soon.
3. Christina Aguilera & Demi Lovato, “Fall in Line”
Two generations of old-school belters came together for the most impressive sheer vocal showcase of the entire BBMAs, with Christina and Demi pushing each other to awesomely melismatic heights in a performance that made Tyra Banks understandably bug-eyed. The vocal calisthenics threatened to overshadow the song in spots, but that’s fine — “Fall in Line” was basically designed for its duet partners to stunt over it in such grand fashion, so that’s sort of the point anyway.
2. Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”
Ariana had the unenviable task of opening the BBMAs following an appropriately tear-choked, wrenching speech from Kelly Clarkson about the Santa Fe shooting that happened late last week, which served as the show’s cold open. But with her similarly emotional, rain-soaked performance of her Sweetenerlead single — a song certainly no stranger to tragedy itself — Ariana pivoted the catharsis back to a musical one with typical grace and professionalism, and with some show-stopping vocal runs in the final chorus that made “No Tears” even more of a wallop than usual.
1. Janet Jackson, “Nasty”/”If”/”Throb” Medley
It would’ve been easy for Janet to accept her lifetime achievement award with a medley of her biggest hits, but it takes a true Icon to have a career that spans ten Hot 100 No. 1 smashes, and to encompass your life’s work with a mini-set that doesn’t include any of them. The forever block-rocking “Nasty” was an obvious choice, guaranteed by then-soon-to-be President Trump’s thoughtless comments to be an anthem for the ensuing #MeToo era, and a quick dip into the iconic intro choreography to “If” — which Janet can still nail at age 52 — was an inspired break.
But the real coup was “Throb,” an explicit ’90s Janet club favorite that was never even released as an official single, but endures as one of her most addictive bangers and most personal, radical statements. Performed at the BBMAs with an emphasis on its communal energy, it made clear that what made Ms. Jackson special a quarter-century ago is just as important today: Her belief that the fights for personal freedom and political freedom are forever intertwined, and that love truly is the best way to combat both.