It was an action-packed, expletive-filled night at the American Music Awards, from Twenty One Pilots’ high-flying pyrotechnics to Justin Bieber leading an international “Let Me Love You” singalong — and that’s not even counting Drake singing along to Taylor Swift (and dressing like Pitbull). Here, we’re focusing solely on the performances, so here are all 16 of the night’s memorable live productions, ranked from worst to best.
16. James Bay, “Let It Go”
Performing a song that now feels older than the AMAs themselves, James Bay competently mewed through a low-key performance that definitely straddled the line between intimate and disappearing.
15. DJ Khaled feat. August Alsina, Future, Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj
Not even Minaj’s hail-mary appearance at the end of this one could mount a comeback for this overall loss of a performance, with August Alsina and Future almost entirely drowned out by their backing track, and DJ Khaled not sure what to do with himself but scream “Another one!” into his co-stars’ mics, and erroneously declare his single the “No. 1 Billboard record in the country right now.”
14. Maroon 5 feat. Kendrick Lamar, “Don’t Wanna Know”
Much-hyped as the closing collaboration between Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar was, AMAs viewers had to face reality a little bit during this performance and wonder if these two artists made even less sense together than K Dot did with Imagine Dragons at the Grammys a couple years back. Plus — not even gonna wear the not-Pokemon suits from the music video? C’mon, dudes, give us something to work with.
13. Niall Horan, “This Town”
Not exactly the kind of fist-pumper that tends to really translate at awards shows, Niall Horan still offered a solid rendition of his very nice debut single, appropriately clad in Mumford vest and facial scruff. Still, we’re hoping when Harry makes his inevitable solo turn on the AMAs stage, we have a little more to remark upon than how nice the set’s rugs are.
12. John Legend, “Love Me Now”
It wouldn’t be a John Legend awards-show performance without a lot of love-around-the-world photos behind it, and this one had a more intricate spread than Robin Williams’ stalk-wall in One Hour Photo. Hard to be too cynical about Legend’s eternal optimism in a time when so many people desperately need it, but gotta hope he’s got bigger gut-punches to come on his new album than the relatively underwhelming mid-tempo of “Love Me Now.”
11. Justin Bieber, “Let Me Love You”
Says all you need to know about Justin Bieber’s 2016 that he can perform a top-five smash headlined by a superstar producer, and you can be disappointed that he didn’t play his other top-five smash headlined by a superstar producer. Still, Bieber brought the cockiness to make DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You” sound like more of a cultural moment than it actually was, and the Internet is really sleeping at the wheel if all the girls crying behind their cell phones don’t become a meme overnight.
10. Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Lower-energy than Bruno Mars’ performance of the same at the EMAs, with his backing group’s ’90s boy band strut replaced with a more stationary Boyz II Men poise — though perhaps they were just conserving energy for the performance’s mid-song breakdown, where Bruno Co. unleashed a series of coordinated pops and locks to the tune of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep.” Reaction shots of Sting in the audience suggest he may have wished they’d just played “Locked Out of Heaven” instead.
9. Green Day, “Bang Bang”
“No KKK / No fascist USA / No Trump!!” Maybe not the most radical act of protest in award-show history, but if Green Day didn’t even do that much in their first post-Election national performance, punk would really be in trouble.
8. The Weeknd, “Starboy”
Playing live from Superman’s ice-crystal Fortress of Solitude, Abel Tesfaye didn’t offer a lot in terms of pageantry — the camera span around him queasily, as if to cover up the performance’s general stasis — but it was a strong rendition of a very good single, and was easily one of the night’s best-sounding performances. Maybe next time just play one of his action-packed videos in the background, too.
7. Shawn Mendes, “Treat You Better” / “Mercy”
Kudos to Shawn Mendes for reaching the level of popularity where he gets to play two songs and doesn’t even have to cut the first one short. Playing “Treat You Better” and “Mercy” back-to-back doesn’t necessarily make a great argument for the diversity of Mendes’ hits thusfar, but the singer-songwriter forever earns goodwill simply by trying harder, switching from guitar to piano and investing enough in his performances to captivate more than the faux-laser shows on the screens behind him.
6. Sting, “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” / “Mesage in a Bottle” / “Every Breath You Take”
Sporting an extremely short-sleeved T-shirt, Award of Merit recipient Sting blasted through a three-song medley with as much buoyancy as any performer not yet alive for the release of The Police’s Synchronicity — pretty much all of ’em but Green Day, Maroon 5, John Legend and DJ Khaled. To Sting’s credit, new single “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” blended seamlessly with the established Police classics, and true to form, he probably could’ve gone for hours longer without his (or the crowd’s) energy lagging.
5. The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey, “Closer”
A little less chemistry between Halsey and Drew Taggart than at the VMAs, but a lot less awkwardness and pitchiness in the general performance as well. Shoutout to Travis Barker attempting to punch through his drumset while fireworks shot off in the background, and to Other Chainsmoker Alex Pall in a flat-brim hat, dutifully plinking the chorus hook on his keyboard.
4. Fifth Harmony, “That’s My Girl”
A little unexpected that Fifth Harmony decided a post-apocalyptic landscape was the best set-design idea for a female-empowerment anthem, but perhaps it was just their sly protest / subtweet of the entire country, given recent events. In any event, 5H didn’t appear to let the end of the world get them down, delivering a stomping, strobe-lit performance of their latest 7/27 single that was nearly as on-fire as the stage was behind them.
3. Lady Gaga, “Million Reasons”
Playing in a set like an open field — where she always imagined her latest album Joanne would play best — Lady Gaga delivered a resounding, mostly solo (with six-string!) performance of power ballad “Million Reasons,” stretching out the climactic high note nearly as long as than the end of her National Anthem rendition at the Super Bowl. Her guitar face could use a little practice, but that’s what the eventual world tour is for, no doubt.
2. Twenty One Pilots, “Heathens”
Toggling back and forth between their Suicide Squad smash “Heathens” and original breakout hit “Stressed Out,” Twenty One Pilots’ AMAs performance takes a little while to find its groove, but explodes into hyperdrive by performance’s cimax, with a masked Tyler Joseph leaping off his piano as explosions shoot off him — as close to Motley Crue as you’re likely to get at a 2016 awards show. It may not have quite captured the entirety of the group’s live spectacle, but for people who watched their surprisingly inert SNL performance and wondered what the big deal was, they probably get it a little better tonight.
1. Ariana Grande feat. Nicki Minaj, “Side to Side”
Ariana Grande transports her latest smash from the gym to the… tropics? Jungle? Rainforest-themed restaurant? In any event, it was a performance even sweatier than her workout at the VMAs, with dancers grinding and writhing in the faux-sand, and Nicki Minaj lazing on her wicker throne, flaunting her gender in a way that would make Pussy Riot proud. Pretty much saves the accompanying song from commercial-overplay hell.