Brutally honest ranking of every performance

November 22, 2021
Coldplay and BTS perform "My Universe".
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With a savvy mix of first-timers – Olivia RodrigoMickey Guyton, Måneskin – and veteran superstars including Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Underwood, the 2021 American Music Awards offered a performance lineup targeting multiple generations. 

In a twist this year, the AMAs brought some of the artists to their roots, as Underwood and Jason Aldean teamed up in Nashville, where they launched their careers, and Kane Brown performed from the HBCU Tennessee State University in his native state. 

As typical during a three-hour event, some acts captivated while others faltered.

Here’s how the all the AMA performers fared, from worst to first.

16. Coldplay and BTS, ‘My Universe’

What a technical mess of a performance. This was the first live performance for Coldplay and BTS on their sweet hit of affection, but if they’re always going to sound this awful, it’s OK if it’s their last. At least we knew the vocals were live, because they were off-key and overpowered the rest of the band. No amount of bouncing from eager frontman Chris Martin or the disciplined BTS could salvage this wreck, made even worse by goofy jumping around as flash pots exploded at the merciful end of the performance.

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15. Walker Hayes, ‘Fancy Like’

The journeyman country singer-songwriter capitalized on the dance craze that accompanies his No. 1 viral hit with a passel of limber-limbed hip-shakers following him around the stage. Punctuating the rudimentary ditty with “whoos” and venturing into the artists’ lounge in front of the stage to sing to his wife, Hayes made the most of what has all of the ingredients of a novelty song.   

14. Chlöe, ‘Have Mercy’

In a cutout-filled white outfit, Chloe Bailey, of Chloe x Halle fame (apparently you graduate to an umlaut upon going solo) traversed the stage with a troupe of female dancers. She also performed her debut single at the VMAs in September, but this time added twerking and a split as she threw off sultry looks.

13. Kane Brown, ‘One Mississippi’

Beamed in from HBCU Tennessee State University, the newly minted arena star presented his single released last summer, which rolls with more country elements than much of his crossover work. Fiddles and a clap-along chorus powered the mid-tempo chugger, as Brown, in a splattered-paint pullover and jeans, sauntered down the walkway to smack hands with fans in between lyrics.

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12. Tainy with Bad Bunny and Julieta Venegas, ‘Lo Siento BB:/’

The world premiere performance of the song from Latin music producer Tainy’s forthcoming album, “Data,” took a futuristic approach. Bad Bunny perched inside a complicated-looking contraption that we’re sure has an official name, a white hood with a camera lens covering his eyes, while Venegas’ face appeared on a video tablet as she sat behind the piano. Tainy, meanwhile, hung behind his nearby keyboard in a plume of smoke, plinking out the melody to the song’s shuffling groove. 

11. Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean, ‘If I Didn’t Love You’

Performing from Nashville as an ode to the twosome’s professional hometown, the country powerhouses blended vocals on their hit from Aldean’s new album, “Macon” (named for his real hometown in Georgia). Aldean stayed seated behind a piano, while Underwood in a thigh-baring black gown belted nearby with her usual zeal.

10. Tyler, The Creator, ‘Massa’

Performing in white shorts with socks pulled up, the rapper stood in front of a house with fake snow dribbling down. As he dug into his deep lyrics – “Mom was in the shelter when ‘Yonkers’ dropped…When I got her out, that’s the moment I knew I made it” – the camera crept closer, allowing viewers to feel his intensity. At the end of the song, taken from his new album, “Call Me If You Get Lost,” a scooter pulled up, Tyler picked up a case, hopped on, and zoomed away.

9. Mickey Guyton, ‘All American’

Stalking the stage in thigh-high black boots, the country star projected her anthem of inclusivity in front of a giant American flag. With her booming voice and engaging smile, Guyton played off her two background singers during the song, which is filled with straightforward lyrics about unity. Guyton looked genuinely touched to be performing as she blew kisses to the crowd and patted her chest in gratitude. 

8. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Traitor’

For her AMAs debut, the emerging star kept it simple, playing acoustic guitar on the pointed Swift-ian ballad. “It took you two weeks/To go off and date her/Guess you didn’t cheat/But you’re still a traitor,” Rodrigo emoted as her all-female band kicked in behind her. Projecting plenty of hurt and emotion, she scaled octaves and, thanks to the simple arrangement, proved why she’s likely about to get christened in this week’s Grammy nominations.

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7. Zoe Wees, ‘Girls Like Us’

The 19-year-old German singer whose music spotlights mental health issues presented the “Song of Soul” moment on the show. In a voice shaded with grit, the bandanna-clad Wees offered a heartfelt delivery of her declaration of loneliness and confusion.

6. Jennifer Lopez, ‘On My Way’

The always-glamorous multi-hyphenate took the unpretentious route for the new single form her upcoming film, “Marry Me.” Backed by an orchestra and with the assistance of a cool costume tweak behind massive video screens, Lopez crooned the feel-good ballad with conviction. Her honeyed vocals are perfectly suited to the song, and its galloping bridge points to another polished hit on her resume. 

5. Giveon, ‘Heartbreak Anniversary’

Like a modern-day James Ingram or Ne-Yo, the R&B singer, who gained prominence on songs by Drake (“Chicago Freestyle”) and Justin Bieber (“Peaches”), is very much a man who knows his way around a sensual ballad. Audible squeals from the women in the crowd threatened to drown out his creamy vocalizing as he strolled down walkways, hit some falsetto notes and flashed many a killer smile. 

4. Silk Sonic, ‘Smokin’ Out the Window’

The pet project of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak opened the show with their current throwback hit. The pair took turns gliding around the stage – Mars sporting his omnipresent sunglasses – in their burnt orange velvet suits, joined by two backup singers to give the performance a Temptations feel. Nothing about Silk Sonic is particularly inventive, but it’s hard not to appreciate their dedication to smooth.

3. BTS, ‘Butter’

Gliding around the stage in, naturally, yellow suits, the big winners at the AMAs invigorated the crowd – including a very involved Joey McIntyre – as they tossed off their radio smash with seeming effortlessness. Trading off vocals and spreading across the stage and catwalks, the group shimmered with their liquid dance moves complemented by their heavenly vocals. (Megan Thee Stallion had been tapped to perform the “Butter” remix with BTS, but pulled out of her appearance Saturday, citing an “unexpected personal matter.”)

2. Måneskin, ‘Beggin’ ‘

Offering their global smash for their U.S. awards show debut – a remake of The Four Seasons’ 1967 hit – the Italian rockers dressed for the occasion in snazzy black tuxes. With serrated guitar, a touch of glam and much European charisma, the quartet (whose name means “moonlight” in Danish) injected a much-appreciated dash of rock ‘n roll into the show. Flickering strobe lights coupled with flying hair augmented the vintage hit’s catchy chorus.

1. New Edition and New Kids on the Block

In a segment built for nostalgia, two veteran boy band behemoths from Boston – New Kids on the Block and New Edition – didn’t so much “battle” as advertised, but provided 10 minutes of unfettered joy. NKOTB hit the block first with “The Right Stuff,” clad in various forms of black and dancing with precision. They cleared the stage for New Edition, nattily attired in colorful fedoras and pea coats, the sextet grooving to “Candy Girl.” Both groups – which featured original members – sounded crisp and looked well-rehearsed. The dancing crowd included a shot of BTS, who were surely thinking, “There we are in 25 years.” Tradeoffs between the groups included “Step By Step” and “Hangin’ Tough” for NKOTB and “Mr. Telephone Man” and “If It Isn’t Love” for New Edition, as well as a silky mashup of “Please Don’t Girl” and “Is This The End.” Absolutely no one was surprised to hear that the adeptly choreographed staging was a teaser for a 2022 tour with the two pop powerhouses. We’re all in.

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