The American Music Awards have been a long-running joke in my family. We had this hypothesis that any artist who agreed to perform at the AMAs wouldn’t be invited to sing at the Grammys that year. We never really tried to find out if this was actually true, but we continued to make fun of the show and let it shrivel up on our DVR.
When it was revealed that the AMAs hit an all-time low in ratings after their broadcast on Sunday, Entertainment Weekly ran an ominous headline asking, “Bieber Fever broken?” The claim was based on the fact that Justin Bieber had swept the night’s top categories, taking favorite pop/rock album and male artist, and the grand artist of the year award, which only he and Taylor Swift have won since 2009.
ABC, which broadcasts the AMAs, countered that the low ratings were due to a competitive lineup thanks to football Sunday. To which I say, are you serious? The guys watching the 49ers crush the Bears are hardly the AMAs’ target audience.
And if you look at the facts, Sunday Night Football wasn’t the only one swooping the award show in ratings. “The Amazing Race” and “60 Minutes” both easily beat the AMAs’ 9.5 million viewers.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, reading the AMAs winners list is like reading a Top 40 chart. Carly Rae Jepsen, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Usher and Nicki Minaj are all present. And that makes sense.
Unlike the Grammys, which are voted on by members of the recording industry, the winners of the AMAs are decided by radio airplay and album sales.
The AMAs then trot out these same radio-friendly singers to whip out their best hits for the show. Carly asks you to call her, Taylor is sad about the hundredth boy who broke her heart (by the way Taylor, ever think you’re the problem?) and Justin shimmies and makes all the Beliebers shriek.
You’d think that the formula would be a bona fide success. If the public is listening to these people on the radio and spending their allowance on their CDs (because let’s be real, most of these artists cater to preteen girls who send death threats to Selena Gomez), why wouldn’t they want to watch them on television?
But the AMAs have two problems. The first is that as an award show they don’t have any merit. When an artist dies the obituary is never going to celebrate that he or she is “an American Music Award Winner!” as a Grammy win would. They’re taken as seriously as the People’s Choice or Teen Choice awards, ingrained by their own formula to celebrate the mainstream and ignore original discoveries.
Even awards that aren’t taken as seriously as their counterparts, like the Golden Globes versus the Oscars, have figured out ways to make themselves relevant. If you can’t win with reputation, win with a good show. The Golden Globes have learned to do that by getting hilarious and risky hosts that match its unpredictable boozy atmosphere.
Which is not to say that the AMAs necessarily need to get frisky, but they do need to get original. As they stand, they only invite radio’s biggest stars to perform songs as we’ve already heard them a million times ““ on the radio. Sure, Nicki Minaj is doing it with a crazy wig on her head, but hey, she does that all the time anyway, so it’s nothing new.
This is where the Grammys beat the AMAs in spades. They’re completely unpredictable in terms of performances. They’ll pair Lady Gaga with Elton John or Linkin Park with Jay-Z, creating unique and breathtaking moments that any music fan will not only appreciate, but will continue to YouTube days after the show. Even in a year when it’s pretty much regarded as fact that Adele is going to sweep the awards, people still tune in to see just what artistic combinations the show has conjured up this time.
The AMAs came close to that success when they brought MC Hammer to sing “Gangnam Style” with Psy, the only moment I saw mentioned on my Facebook feed later that night.
And that’s just the kind of moment the show needs to focus on. Pondering the viability of Bieber’s career or how to become more desirable to the football-watching demographic isn’t going to get the AMAs anywhere. They need to think outside the box and shake things up. Maybe then my family will start watching.
What’s your dream mainstream/artistic mashup? Tell Konstantinides, who would like to see Frank Ocean teach Bieber a thing or two, at email@example.com