More democratic, accessible and unpredictable than the Grammys, the AMAs are growing in stature
The American Music Awards: based on nothing but public love
Roll up, roll up – the annual circus of stardust and celebrity is now upon us, with awards season officially declared open this Sunday, when many of the biggest names in pop will turn out for the American Music Awards (AMAs).
The landmark 45th edition of the world’s largest fan-vote awards will return to Los Angeles’s soulless-sounding Microsoft Theatre on Sunday night (United States time). Bruno Mars leads the charge with eight nominations at this year’s ceremony, while singer Pink will make her highest-stakes TV appearance of the year, just a week before she closes the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, performing at du Arena on November 26.
The AMAs can be considered the anti-Grammys, which is precisely what iconic TV presenter Dick Clark intended when he founded them in 1973. Much like the Oscars, the stately Grammys are held at the end of the flashbulb-popping awards season in February; hosted at the beginning of the cycle, the brighter, brasher AMAs kick things off in November, like the film world’s Gotham Awards and Hollywood Film Awards.
The crucial difference – the secretive Grammys are decided by a somewhat opaque poll of voting Recording Academy members but the AMAs are based on nothing but public love. Nominees are decided by an intricate algorithm that balances “key fan interactions” clocked by Billboard Magazine, including album and digital song sales, radio airplay, streaming, social media activity and touring. The message is: sales count, fans count, egos don’t.
In the United States’ largely fragmented, FM-led music scene, this has historically seen the top awards incongruously split between mainstream pop and country music performers. six most decorated acts in the history of the AMAs can be evenly split between globally renowned pop superstars Michael Jackson (23 wins), Whitney Houston (21) and Taylor Swift (19); and country icons with only limited global appeal, Alabama (21), Kenny Rogers (19) and Garth Brooks (17).
Meanwhile despite their own devoted followings, the marginally less mainstream genres of hip-hop and rock have been largely overlooked – notable recent exceptions including Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the latter last year clocking a record 13 nominations – while the more traditional art-forms the Grammys diligently seek to represent, such as jazz, blues and folk, are squarely ignored by the AMAs mission for meritocracy. And on that mission, these days it is inevitably pop of all flavours that gets nominated. So for unpretentious music fans across the world, the AMAs are where it’s at – a level playing field which attracts the biggest names to the stage, both to collect awards and make big-budget live appearances.
There is something uniquely egalitarian in seeing the winning nominees, for better or worse, crowned by nothing more than a simple online public poll – voting is still open in the Artist, New Artist and Collaboration of the Year categories, so get clicking now – and crucially, awards are given for “Favourite” performers in a category, infinitely more certifiable and rather less hubristic than the typical “Best…” awards.
Riding off the success of third album 24K Magic, and its breakout smash single That’s What I Like, Bruno Mars has had an undisputedly good year – which arguably began when his performance of that LP’s title track opened the AMAs last year. The eight nominations his hard work was repaid with, include nods for the key categories Artist of the Year, Video of the Year and Favourite Male Artist across the Pop/Rock, Soul/R&B and Adult Contemporary categories. Here one wonders if the algorithms could pick a camp and stay with it, to give someone else a go. In the top Artist of the Year category – won by Ariana Grande last year – Mars faces off against Ed Sheeran, Drake, Kendrick Lamar and The Chainsmokers, each of whom has five nominations apiece, as does The Weeknd. Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee each clocked four nods.
Former One Direction member Niall Horan seems a shoo-in for New Artist of the Year – which was won by ex-bandmate Zayn Malik in 2016 – having previously clocked seven wins as a member of 1D. He squares up against James Arthur, Post Malone, Julia Michaels and Rae Sremmurd for the coveted gong.
The one confirmed winner – with no vote required – is Diana Ross who, at the age of 73, will perform live before picking up the AMA Lifetime Achievement award. She follows previous illustrious awardees Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald.
Looking then to the stage, the ceremony’s organisers recently confirmed the jam-packed line-up of performers. Topping the promotional buzz is superstar Pink’s fifth AMAs appearance, which apparently promises to “elevate her commitment to performance art with a fearless, one-of-a-kind musical experience”, presenting the title track of her chart-topping new record Beautiful Trauma. We’ll have to tune in to decipher exactly what that means, but here’s hoping she brings the same fearless commitment to elevation to Abu Dhabi a week later.
Elsewhere Christina Aguilera will pay tribute to Whitney Houston with a special one-off performance of music from The Bodyguard, marking the movie’s 25th anniversary. Other A-list names confirmed include Selena Gomez, performing her track Wolves, as well as BTS, Kelly Clarkson and Demi Lovato. Expected onstage collaborations include Imagine Dragons and Khalid, while Alessia Cara is tipped to pair up with Zedd. But it is the bits between the music that remain likely to generate the hottest headlines. Despite their somewhat lightweight reputation, the AMAs are attracting ever more note, especially following last year’s politically charged ceremony – which took place days after the election of Donald Trump as US president. Eschewing the kind of media-friendly shtick viewers might be used to, several artists made pointed remarks which, in the process, shone a brighter critical light on the AMAs.
Flouting their fading punk credentials, Green Day cheekily called out Trump, inserting the intro of MDC’s Born to Die into their performance – complete with the chant “No war, no KKK, no fascist USA”. Meanwhile, supermodel, Chrissy Teigen made an expletive-laden election reference, while introducing her husband John Legend to the stage, and co-host Jay Pharoah offered up some pointed Trump impersonations.
Eventful turns in desperate times, perhaps, and it seems improbable the AMAs will grab the zeitgeist in quite the same way this year. But as a meritocratic snapshot of where the American music industry – and therefore much of the world’s airwaves – are at right now, it doesn’t get fairer than this annual celebrity strut. Bring on the stardust.
The AMAs take place on Sunday at 8pm EST (Monday, 5am UAE time). You can vote for Artist of the Year before 9am (UAE time) on Friday, and for New Artist of the Year and Collaboration of the Year until one-hour into the ceremony, before 6am (UAE time) on Monday, at www.theamas.com/vote.
Pink will perform the closing night of Abu Dhabi Grand Prix’s Yasalam After-Race Concerts, at du Arena, Yas Island, on November 26. Entry is for race-day ticket holders only; for packages, go to www.yasmarinacircuit.com