In an era where musicians seem to strive harder and harder to stand out through live performance, flamboyancy and use of technology are par for the course. Perhaps this is why last night’s Billboard Music Awards took a turn in the opposite direction for the sake of throwing us all an expectation curveball, with the likes of Madonna and Kesha offering stripped down performances that went against the expected norm of over the top fanfare (though Britney Spears did opt for this route as the opener of the show with a medley of songs ranging from “Work Bitch” to “I’m A Slave 4 U”).
But elsewhere, even the typically bombastic live styling of Rihanna was stripped down to the bare minimum for “Love on the Brain,” during which the singer wore a vibrant green fur wrap and relied solely on the merit of her voice to impress, as well as an impassioned delivery that almost made you feel as though she was singing with someone very particular in mind.
Kesha’s powerful cover of “It Ain’t Me Babe” (which has also allured the likes of Nancy Sinatra in the past) was yet another perfect post-Dr. Luke legal battle song to select, with lyrics that once again highlighted the nature of her tormentor, specifically if considered from the point of view of Dr. Luke: “I’m not the one you need/You say you’re lookin’ for someone/Who’s never weak but always strong/To protect you an’ defend you/Whether you are right or wrong/Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe.” No, it certainly was not. But for us, it was Kesha (joined by Ben Folds) last night that continued to stand out with a basal performance that echoed her recent rendition of Lady Gaga’s “‘Til It Happens To You.”
Others who deviated from the diminished visual performance rule included Pink, still perhaps trapped in the early 00s mentality of requiring beaucoup de pomp and circumstance in order to go for a more unplugged feel. Her circus act-ish rendition of “Just Like Fire” (from the Through the Looking Glass Soundtrack) was a bit on the played side (obviously, Britney already has a monopoly on that scene), but one-upped even the likes of Celine Dion and Ariana Grande in terms of production value.
And finally, in the chic fashion of late, Madonna’s closing performance tribute to Prince (which also featured Stevie Wonder to join in on “Purple Rain”) was reamed for being too simple, and not fitting enough in energy and uniqueness to honor The Purple One. Yet, at the same time, there was something beautiful in Madonna’s choice to use “Nothing Compares 2 U” as the track to honor the memory of her contemporary. Its reverence was evident not just in the lyrical content, but in Madonna’s presentation of the track, which oft still gets associated with Sinead O’Connor (circuitously connected to Madonna she seems to be, as the former also parodied her ripping up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live back in 1992 by subsequently tearing up a photo of Joey Buttafuoco and quipping, “Fight the real enemy.”). And, indeed, Madonna’s rendition was in keeping with the overt trend of the evening: minimalism.