(The Root) — The 40th anniversary of the American Music Awards was the first to be held without its producer Dick Clark, the iconic television and radio host who died in April from a heart attack. He was 82. Celebrating his life as well as those of other late legends, like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, made the broadcast a poignant one.
With no formal host this year, the program relied on announcer Shawn Parr's voiceovers and celebrities introducing quick transitions between awards (see full list here) and live performances. Ryan Seacrest, who presented the first award to Justin Bieber for favorite male artist — pop/rock, was a protégé of Clark's and probably would have made the most sense as host.
As a recently growth-spurted Bieber took to the stage to accept the first of his three awards for the night (including the big artist of the year title), he began on a surprisingly defensive note. "First of all, I want to say this is for all the haters who thought that maybe that I was just here for one or two years," he gloated. "But I feel like I'm going to be here for a very long time."
The only other repeat winner of the night was Nicki Minaj, who took home the favorite album — rap/hip-hop category for the second year in a row and favorite artist — rap/hip-hop, beating out her Young Money cohorts Drake and Tyga. She profusely thanked her devoted fans (her "Barbs"), best friend and hairdresser and was the only artist of the night to acknowledge the program itself.
"Shout out to the AMAs," she said. "You guys always have the best shows!" She created a scene of a winter wonderland to perform her new song "Freedom," and it was a gentle and lovely performance, even though her lyrics were braggadocious.
Usher seemed a bit woozy and off as he kicked off the show with a medley of his recent songs "Numb," "Climax" and "Can't Stop Won't Stop." A moment of choreographed running on a treadmill belt did little to keep him from sounding out of breath. He appeared further discombobulated when, clad in dark sunglasses, he accepted the award for favorite male artist — soul/R&B with a thank-you speech obscured by the censor's bleeps.
Auto-Tune is a crutch for the vocally challenged, so it wasn't exciting to hear the tool applied to Christina Aguilera on her new song "Lotus." Surprisingly, though, when the effect was turned off for "Let There Be Love," she had noticeable trouble belting out her high notes. While it's understandable that her lithe "Genie in a Bottle" days are long past, it was a bit of a shock to see her struggle with her most natural gift.
She reappeared almost immediately to help Pitbull finish his set with a snippet of their collaboration "Feel This Moment," which he tacked on to the end of "Don't Stop the Party." The Cuban rapper from Miami lip-synched, which kept the energy at a tepid level even with a gaggle of attractive female dancers shimmying behind him.
Between performing at the funerals of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, it seems that Stevie Wonder has been most often seen on television in the past three years singing for tragic occasions. When he took to the stage to honor Dick Clark, Wonder's voice was shaky at times as he sang in tribute to his dearly departed friend of almost 50 years.
"I challenge you as communicators, leaders, politicians, spiritual leaders: Put your love first as we musicians put our music and songs first," he declared. "Unite the world and then we can be jamming till the break of dawn!" On this bittersweet occasion, Wonder managed to squeeze out some of the show's most joyous moments as he offered tastes of three of his biggest hits: "Master Blaster," "My Cherie Amour" and "Sir Duke."
Rockers Linkin Park and No Doubt handed in effortless and magnetic performances that showed why these bands have earned a fair amount of longevity. However, they admittedly couldn't beat the cheap thrill of watching Korean YouTube sensation Psy close the show by dancing alongside '90s rap sensation MC Hammer in an amalgamation of their respective hits "Gangnam Style" and "2 Legit 2 Quit." While not the most musical of moments, it was still pretty entertaining and showed the influence and impact of hip-hop's movement across the globe.
The evening's most undeniably breathtaking performance came from Pink, who defied gravity and stamina with "Try" as she re-enacted the limber and combative ballet moves of the song's video with the help of Broadway dancer Colt Prattes. Her voice was passionate and strong as she sang while upside down, flipping over and being thrown around a set that looked like a fiery room. Pink sure didn't look like someone who had a baby just a year ago. A pop star with resilience and substance, she is a shining example of the depth and excitement that Dick Clark envisioned for the American Music Awards.