The 2017 Billboard Music Awards took place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas this Sunday, and while the official winners of the night were youngsters like Drake, the Chainsmokers, and twenty one pilots, it was the elder statesmen and stateswomen of pop — late legends Biggie Smalls and Chris Cornell, and Vegas queens Cher and Celine Dion — who truly dominated the proceedings.
These were the night’s highs and occasional lows…
HIGH: Multigenerational Bad Boys for Life Unite
On what would have been slain rap star the Notorious B.I.G.’s 45th birthday, Bad Boy honcho Puff Daddy appeared onstage to pay his respects to “my friend, my brother, and my artist … the best rapper I ever had the chance to work with.”
Following a reel of archival footage of Biggie’s late mother, Voletta Wallace, accepting her son’s posthumous BBMAs trophy from Puffy two decades ago (“A life lost is a life missed,” she said), Biggie’s 20-year-old son, rapper-actor C.J. Wallace, approached the podium and said, “I know my father is looking down on all of us tonight and all of this love and support. My sister and I carry on his name with tremendous pride, and I live my life by his words.” (Later, another BBMAs legend’s offspring, Michael Jackson’s oldest child Prince, showed up to present Drake with the night’s biggest honor, Top Artist).
LOW: Vanessa Hudgens Gets a Bad Rap
Hey Vanessa, what’s good? The former High School Musical starlet — after bizarrely/unconvincingly claiming that Nicki Minaj is her “rap alter ego” — accepted a challenge from her BBMAs co-host, hip-hop MC Ludacris, to drop a few impromptu verses. We applaud Vanessa’s bravery, but this was a moment we did not want 4 life. (In her defense, Hudgens fared much better when — once again egged on by an oddly aggressive Luda — she belted a few lines of BBMAs performer Celine Dion’s “Power of Love.”)
HIGH: Drake Finds His Love
Puff Daddy and C.J. Wallace weren’t the only hip-hop stars who gave emotional speeches Sunday. Drake may have been this year’s big BBMAs champ with 13 trophies (an all-time record for the most wins in a single night), but he took a cue from Kendrick Lamar and remained humble when he eloquently accepted the award for Top Male Artist.
“I had a close friend of mine that didn’t support my album but supported other people’s stuff, and I asked him why,” Drake began. “And their response was, ‘I don’t want to look thirsty, and you get enough love as it is.’ And it’s crazy that we’re all here on earth for a limited amount of time, and we need to show love while we’re here. So tonight, I want to say, Vanessa Hudgens, you look incredible tonight. I want to say, Ludacris, I know we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but I have a lot of love for you, and I want to say that while I’m still here. And Nicki Minaj, I’m glad we found our own way back. And Lil Wayne, if not for you, none of us would be here tonight. And my dad’s got on a purple suit!”
We’re sure Drake’s violet-attired father was proud.
HIGH and LOW: A Too-Silent Moment for Chris Cornell
Along with the Puffy’s Notorious B.I.G. speech, the other moving tribute of the night came when Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds delivered a short but sweet salute to Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died Wednesday at age 52.
“Although tonight is a time to celebrate the music and artists of the past year, it’s also a time to remember someone we lost this week,” Reynolds said somberly. “Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was a musical architect and a pioneer in the Seattle grunge movement, a singer with the voice for the ages, with a foundation that has helped so many children around the world. Even though Chris is gone, his legacy endures. We send our respects and love to Chris’s family at this time. Please join with us in a moment of silence to remember Chris Cornell.”
— Isaias582 ® (@Isaias582) May 22, 2017
So why does this moment qualify as both a high and low? Because, as touching as it was, it would have been wonderful to see the BBMAs (a show sadly light on rock music in general) stage a proper, full musical tribute to someone as important as Cornell — even with the late notice. Why didn’t Dick Clark Productions ring up Eddie Vedder, or the Rage Against the Machine members with whom Cornell formed supergroup Audioslave, or even a hip new rock band like Royal Blood? Apparently we’ll just have to wait till next year’s Grammys for that.
HIGH: Her Minajesty Is the BBMAs Queen
Thankfully, in light of Hudgens’s freestyle fail, we had the real deal Nicki Minaj (whom Drake cutely called “the love of my life” in another acceptance speech) opening the show Sunday. At first it seemed like she might be upstaged by an adorable troupe of bewigged mini-me’s busting some moves to a medley of her many Billboard hits — but then the kiddos cleared the stage and the show took a very adult turn, as Minaj emerged in a chain-mail brassiere, dry-humped the stage, and climbed a cage that looked like it had been lifted straight off the Fosse-inspired set of fellow ex-American Idol judge Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” music video. And then Lil Wayne emerged (joined by Jason Derulo and DJ David Guetta) and had about half of his R-rated rap censored by ABC.
The performance was perfectly capped off by amusing audience cutaways to the stunned expressions of decidedly non-Nicki-esque spectators like Lorde, Gwen Stefani, and Blake Shelton. It was a polarizing number, for sure — just like anything Minaj does — but Nicki certainly got the BBMAs party started. And since Minaj recently established a new record for most Hot 100 hits by a female artist — 76, besting Aretha Franklin’s previous tally of 73 — she deserves some R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
HIGH: Miley Cyrus Injects Nashville Into “Malibu”
Returning to her country roots and introduced by her dad, Billy Ray, and little sister, Noah (“For the first time in years with pants on!” was Noah’s joking announcement), a kinder, gentler Miley took the stage in a cowgirl hat and cutoffs and gave a surprisingly straightforward TV-premiere performance of her new folk-pop single, “Malibu.” We admit that we missed the foam-fingered, twerktastic, Flaming Lips- and computer-cat-assisted awards show antics of her wacky past, but there was no denying that this effort was vocally stellar. And Miley was so pleased by the audience’s warm reception, her eyes filled with tears. Billy Ray must be proud that his little girl is finally all grown up.
HIGH: Celine Dion’s Heart Goes On
Speaking of tears, everyone at the BBMAs (including a verklempt Vanessa Hudgens, who was still fanning her eyes with a tissue when the show returned from commercial break) was moved by Dion’s 20th-anniversary performance of her Oscar-winning Titanic theme, “My Heart Will Go On” — a song that has clearly taken on sad new meaning after the 2016 deaths of Dion’s husband and brother.
HIGH: Lorde Rocks the Karaoke Mic
Usually when an artist’s TV performance is described as “total karaoke,” it’s a dis. (This was one of Simon Cowell’s go-to insults back in his Idol days.) However, when New Zealand chanteuse Lorde sang her fiery comeback single “Green Light” while reading her sassy breakup lyrics off a lo-fi karaoke screen, nothing was lost in translation; the result was just quirky and adorable. Lorde may not have been eligible for any BBMA trophies this year, but she was definitely the winner of the “Pop Star We’d Most Like to Do Karaoke With” Award.
LOW: The Chainsmokers Fail to Bring the Heat
The Chainsmokers’ unstoppable (and, frankly, unexplainable) pop domination continued apace Sunday, as they scooped up four undeserved awards for their bland bro-tronica and ungraciously heckled the perfectly nice Ansel Elgort from their seats for no good reason. Their charisma-free “Young” performance, featuring Drew Taggart strumming an acoustic guitar in an attempt to pull off some sort of EDMford & Sons vibe, just made us want to hear Vanessa Hudgens rap again.
HIGH: Halsey Is Smokin’
Halsey made a couple of trips to the BBMAs podium Sunday to accept accolades for her “Closer” collaboration with the Chainsmokers, but the exquisite Astralwerks songstress really shined when she took the stage solo for her electric electro performance of “Now or Never.” This lady is a true talent, and she deserves top billing from now on.
HIGH: We Have Zero “Issues” With Julia Michaels
Michaels has co-penned hits for Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony, Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas, Britney Spears, and numerous other pop superstars, but her solo career has remained largely under the radar until she released “Issues” this year. Passionately performing the breakout single with a string section and rocking a natty Annie Hall suit, Michaels — like Lorde, Halsey, and, yes, Miley — provided a refreshing counterbalance to much of the night’s vapid, flashy pop.
LOW: Sam Hunt Has an Unimpressive “Body” of Work
If you ever wondered what it would sound like if one half of the Chainsmokers went country, look no further than bro-country heartthrob Sam Hunt and his latest formulaic summer single, “Body Like a Back Road.” ‘Nuff said.
HIGH: Cher Turns Back Time
Only the uni-monikered, unitarded Cher could upstage Celine, Nicki, and Miley. Receiving a lifetime achievement award, the ageless icon, who turned 71 the day before the ceremony, bragged that she can still “hold a five-minute” plank — and the proof was in the way she filled out the sheer bodystocking she wore in her “If I Could Turn Back Time” music video almost 30 years ago.
“I’ve wanted to do what I do since I was 4 years old, and I’ve been doing it for 53 years,” Cher said. “I want to thank my mom, because when I was really young, she said, ‘You’re not going to be the smartest, prettiest, or the most talented, but you’re going to be special. And then when I met Sonny [Bono], he said the same thing. And there was nothing about me that led anyone to believe I was going to be special … I think luck has so much to do with my success.”
We respectfully disagree, and judging by the starstruck look on presenter Gwen Stefani’s face or the wild cheers from the audience (which included Cher’s son, Chaz), it was pretty clear that everyone thought Cher was the most special person in the room.