(The Root) — Given the deaths of several music icons in recent months, the 2012 Billboard Music Awards could have easily turned into a somber, staid affair. But the three-hour show, broadcast live on Sunday night from the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas, managed to be an upbeat celebration of the music industry's current crop of chart-topping talent, such as Adele, LMFAO and Chris Brown, without letting the mood sour during respectful and mostly rousing tributes to Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston and Adam "MCA" Yauch of the Beastie Boys.
LMFAO kicked off the night's performances with a medley of their biggest hits ("Party Rock Anthem," "Sorry for the Party Rocking" and "I'm Sexy and I Know It") that ended in rappers Redfoo and Skyblu (sporting a new haircut) stripping to their boxer briefs. The duo accepted two (Hot 100 Song of the Year, for "Party Rock Anthem," and Top Duo or Group) of their six awards during the televised portion of the event. "This is a dream come true … Dance music is back, baby!" shouted Redfoo during their Song of the Year acceptance speech, as the camera caught his father, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, smiling and applauding. (For a complete list of winners, see here.)
Shortly after that Justin Bieber won the award for Social Artist of the Year for his predominance on various social media networks, and Katy Perry won a Spotlight Award for being the first woman to have five No. 1 Hot 100 hits, tying a record held by the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
During his acceptance speech for taking Top New Artist honors, Pittsburgh MC Wiz Khalifa nervously thanked God (natch), his label, his fans and his fiancée — and Kanye West's ex-girlfriend — the blonde, buzz-cut-sporting Amber Rose, for "putting up with my crazy butt."
Speaking of statement hairdos, Brandy rocked inky black curls when she introduced Chris Brown. He performed his "Turn Up the Music" flanked by background dancers, while BMX bike riders did stunts on a half-pipe ramp behind them. The bare-chested and leather bomber- and foxtail-wearing Brown, who appeared to be lip-synching, showed off some incomparable dance moves in a routine that was like the X-Games meets The Warriors. Later in the evening, he scooped up the R&B Artist of the Year Award.
But where Brown's routine succeeded in showcasing perhaps his best asset — his energetic dancing — Natasha Bedingfield's tribute to Donna Summer failed to display her considerable vocal chops. She struggled with the first verse of "Last Dance" before the show faded to a commercial break.
Still, it was Usher who was the artist guilty of the night's oddest performance. Delivering a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde meets Little Red Riding Hood-themed performance of "Scream," the R&B superstar danced with a woman in a red hooded cloak. After an embrace, she wrapped herself in the garment. Usher then removed it, and she had disappeared and a male dancer who looked like the singer's doppelganger was dancing in her place. Weird.
The show's high points were the tributes to two recently deceased icons (MCA and Houston) and one living legend (Stevie Wonder). John Legend belted a bold rendition of "The Greatest Love of All" and Houston's Sparkle co-star Jordin Sparks came as close as anyone could to really doing justice to "I Will Always Love You." She sang beautifully. Period.
Whoopi Goldberg, flanked by the two singers, presented Houston's sister-in-law Pat Houston and daughter Bobbi Kristina with the late icon's Millennium Award. "Thank you to everyone who supported us through it all, not just when it was good but when it was bad," Bobbi Kristina said. "Thank you for showing that much love because she deserved it. I'm just blessed to have been in such an incredible woman's life. There will never be another one, ever."
Cee-Lo and Goodie Mob, as they were curiously described by co-hosts Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell (from Modern Family), sang their anthem "Fight to Win." Meanwhile a Cirque du Soleil one-legged dancer twirled around on crutches better than most people are able to do on two feet. Once the song finished, Goodie Mob rocked "Fight for Your Right to Party" in memory of the Beastie Boys' MCA, who died of cancer earlier this month.
Finally, Alicia Keys presented Stevie Wonder with the Billboard Icon Award. "We're in a place in life that we have to commit ourselves to one thing, and that is to love," he said. "I believe that love ultimately will always win over hate and peace over war. We have approximately 7 billion people in the world, and I would like for all of you today to commit yourselves to using your heart and joining me in putting your best love forward. Not only that but if we bring our hearts together for unity we can change the world by being as one." Wonder sang "Superstitious," backed by a choir and a full band, ending the night on a decidedly high note.
Hillary Crosley is a contributor to The Root.