The Billboard Music Awards 2016 were broadcast live from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas — though “live” didn’t apply to all the performances. The recipient of the Millennium Award, Britney Spears opened the show with a medley during which she barely bothered to sync her miming to the backing track.
This was the most controversial moment of the show, and it wasn’t even all that controversial if you’ve followed Spears’ M.O. these past few years.
The other eagerly awaited performances stayed safe, too, though at least they benefited from being actually live.
Finally allowed to perform — under the condition that she wouldn’t mention her litigation with producer Dr. Luke and label Kemosabe/Sony — Kesha brought down the house with an austere cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” backed by just Ben Folds on the piano and Rob Moose on the violin.
The other potentially explosive situation was Madonna’s tribute to Prince — a contentious choice considering she has little history with him aside from co-writing one song in 1989. She defused the situation by not trying to out-Prince Prince, instead delivering “Nothing Compares 2 U” as a somber elegy, followed by “Purple Rain” with guest Stevie Wonder.Aside from a feisty performance by The Go-Go’s, celebrating the 35th anniversary of their hit “We Got the Beat,” rock and roll was completely absent from the show, which was dominated by a homogenous, bland mix of pop, dance music, country and R&B. Surprisingly for a heated election year, everybody was on their best behavior and refrained from speechifying. The closest we got to a statement was Demi Lovato’s t-shirt, bearing a bathroom-inclusive symbol.
Mostly the performances were a little underpowered. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani made bedroom eyes at each other on their duet “Go Ahead and Break My Heart” but stayed well within G-rated guidelines. Even Pink, debuting “Just Like Fire” (from Tim Burton’s upcoming movie “Alice Through the Looking Glass”), stuck to her own tried-and-true with yet another aerial number.
The lead exceptions came from two singers who unleashed impassioned vocals. For “Love on the Brain” Rihanna avoided unnecessary flash and focused on the performance itself, while Celine Dion gave her all on her new single, a cover of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” — a clear message to the audience considering the rough year she’s had, with her husband and brother dying the same week in January.Afterwards Dion tearfully received the Icon Award from her son, René-Charles.
In the midst of all that action, the awards themselves felt like an afterthought and went down pretty much as expected, with Adele taking Top Artist and Top Album — she gave prerecorded acceptance speeches, being on tour — and The Weeknd making several trips to the podium.