“Tonight you’re just getting me,” Kelly Clarkson warned during her opening monologue at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards. She was trying to set expectations for her first-ever awards show hosting job — the kind of job, she pointed out, that usually goes to actors and comedians. But “just” Clarkson turned out to be more than enough; the original American Idol’s unfiltered commentary and enthusiasm for her peers — not to mention a watercooler-worthy medley of the past year’s biggest hits and, later, a high-energy rendition of “Whole Lotta Woman” — provided some welcome levity in a night that had its fair share of heavy moments.
The first one came from Clarkson herself: In a cold open before the official show kick-off, an already-tearful Clarkson spoke about the recent school shooting in Santa Fe and explained that she was asked to lead Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena in a moment of silence. “I’m so sick of moments of silence, it’s not working, obviously,” she said. “Why don’t we do a moment of action? Why don’t we do a moment of change? Why don’t we change what’s happening? Because it’s horrible.” Those are tough words to follow, but it’s hard to think of a more fitting segue than Ariana Grande’s spirited performance of her new single, “No Tears Left to Cry” — a triumphant single about picking up the pieces after tragedy, and also her first new track since the deadly attack at her Manchester concert in 2016. Yet that wasn’t the only performance of the night to reference gun violence: Bebe Rexha also got choked up as she introduced a performance from Shawn Mendes and Khalid, who sang their new duet “Youth” with backing from the choir from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where another mass shooting took place in February.
Some artists used their time in the spotlight to pay tribute to late greats: The Chainsmokers and Halsey remembered Avicii and urged viewers to support those struggling with mental health while presenting an award for Top Hot 100 Song of 2018; the Chainsmokers also dedicated their win for Top Dance/Electronic Artist to Avicii later in the show.
Other artists used their spotlight to make feminist statements: Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato debuted their new duet, “Fall in Line,” a women’s empowerment anthem that addresses the way society polices young girls, while flanked by dancers dressed up as actual policemen. Taylor Swift used her acceptance speech for Top Female Artist to thank both the female artists who paved the way for her and the inspiring up-and-comers who are just picking up instruments and embarking on their careers — a relevant message for a show whose commercial breaks were peppered with Uber ads featuring Ciara spotlighting the unsung female songwriters and producers working behind-the-scenes.
And then, of course, there was Billboard cover star and Icon Award recipient Janet, who powered through a melody of hits — including “Nasty” and “If” — after a video introduction that touched on the socio-political importance of landmark albums like Control and Rhythm Nation 1814. She then delivered a soft-spoken but impassioned speech that touched on, among other things, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements: “For all our challenges, we live at a glorious moment in history,” Jackson said. “It’s a moment when at long last, women have made it clear that we will no longer be controlled, manipulated, or abused. I stand with those women, and with those men equally outraged by discrimination who support us in heart and mind.”
Jackson was hardly the only legend present: Jennifer Lopez performed her new single “Dinero” with assists from DJ Khaled and a pre-filmed cameo from Cardi B, while Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue closed the show with a nostalgic medley of classics like “Push It” and “Whatta Man.”
But, mostly, the night was a showcase for high-powered collaborations — Macklemore and Kesha reminisced about the “Good Old Days” from a remote stage, while Maren Morris, Zedd, and Grey met in “The Middle” live for the first time — and newer artists, who used their air time to prove they’re only just getting started. BTS seemed to get the loudest reception of the night with a performance of “Fake Love”; Dua Lipa breathed new life into last year’s “New Rules” by dancing all over giant flamingo — the kind of high-production-value performance that cements an artist’s star power and whets appetite for future flashy tours. Shawn Mendes, standing in a field of light-up flowers, delivered a stirring performance of his new single “In My Blood,” which was yet another reminder of just how far he’s come from making Vines and opening for Taylor Swift (who sang and danced along from the audience).
Meanwhile, Normani joined Top New Artist winner Khalid for a performance of their Love, Simon soundtrack cut “Love Lies,” drumming up excitement for her upcoming post-Fifth Harmony solo career with a fierce, extended dance break and some of her sultriest live vocals to date. And speaking of life after 5H: Camila Cabello, who made her live debut as a solo artist last year after departing from Fifth Harmony in December of 2016, took her victory lap with a performance of her chart-topping single “Havana” and her new Pharrell Williams duet, “Sangria Wine” — not to mention an award for Billboard Chart Achievement. In a night devoted to saluting superstars, reflecting on pop pioneers, and looking back on a year of hits, there are plenty of icons-in-the-making to get fans excited about the future, too.