“I will love you unconditionally,” promised Katy Perry in the opening number of the American Music Awards. Wrapped in a kimono amid an Orientalist fantasia straight out of “Kill Bill,” the singer was using her appearance on the awards show, broadcast Sunday night on ABC from L.A.’s Nokia Theatre, to bring attention to her current single, “Unconditionally.”
The song about finding love after divorce is part of her plan this year to age up her image. But that line from its chorus might also describe the audience loyalty that pop stars on Perry’s level once enjoyed, back when fans pledged allegiance to artists and could be expected to stick with them through the occasional misstep or hiatus.
Today, though — in an age of always-on entertainment options — stars must refresh that devotion on a day-to-day, even minute-to-minute basis. And with their large viewerships and social-media tie-ins, awards shows have become perhaps the most effective way to remain a part of the conversation.
So where A-list talent used to come out primarily for the Grammy Awards, superstars can now be counted on to show up for lower-wattage gigs including the MTV Video Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards and, indeed, the American Music Awards, which present themselves as the people’s choice because the winners are determined, at least in part, by fans’ votes.
The result is a kind of promotional arms race in which who won what isn’t nearly as important as who turned up to feed the beast. (In the unlikely event that anyone asks you, Taylor Swift won artist of the year Sunday, and Justin Timberlake was named favorite male soul/R&B artist and favorite male pop/rock artist.)
If this state of affairs calls to mind the picture of a performer punching a clock — putting in the work to hold on to that highly conditional love — well, the AMAs this year didn’t do much to diminish that idea.
The majority of the performances felt like little more than brand-maintenance exercises: a hectic yet joyless rendition of “Timber” by Pitbull and Kesha, for instance, or Ariana Grande’s dully competent take on her throwback-soul tune “Tattooed Heart,” for which she was backed by a suit-clad doo-wop quartet.
Timberlake poured some live-band muscle into “Drink You Away” but didn’t really put across the boozy desperation of the song’s lyric; as always, he was coolly professional.
And Imagine Dragons demonstrated how largely unexciting the prospect of an arena-rock group feels in 2013. (Luke Bryan had a bit more luck using the same tools — chunky guitars, a booming beat, whoa-oh-oh vocals — to sell a country song about catching up a little catfish dinner.)
Having struck out recently with her more outré moves, Christina Aguilera cleverly reverted to an earlier version of her brand with a stripped-down version of “Say Something,” her hit with A Great Big World, that strongly recalled her 2002 ballad “Beautiful.”
Other artists played it less safe to varying degrees of success.
T-Boz and Chilli of the great ’90s girl group TLC provided the requisite award-show train-wreck moment with a performance of their indelible 1995 song “Waterfalls.” The problem? The third (and arguably most important) member of TLC, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, died in 2002, and here she was replaced by the rapper Lil Mama, who played Left Eye in a recent VH1 biopic on the band. It was ghoulish.
Lady Gaga and R. Kelly risked offense too in an elaborate bit, set in a mockup of the Oval Office, that had the two eccentrics seemingly portraying Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy (or maybe Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton) as they sang their duet “Do What U Want.”
But the gamble paid off; this was Lady Gaga at her theatrical, button-pushing best.
And then there was Miley Cyrus, whose much-discussed season of infamy hit overdrive with her ultra-raunchy VMAs performance in August.
In the days before the American Music Awards, she and the show’s organizers used social media to tease something even more outrageous. On Sunday, though, the joke was on viewers as Cyrus performed her power ballad “Wrecking Ball” in front of a willfully amateurish image of a cat mouthing the tune’s anguished lyrics.
The stunt blunted the impact of the song, one of the most emotionally potent of 2013. But in its thrilling perversity, it did what an awards-show appearance must these days: It gave us something to remember.
At least for a few days, anyway.