The American Music Awards unfolded last Sunday with pop rapper Pitbull on hosting duties. Awards with winners chosen by polling music fans were celebrated with distinct red carpet entrances and eye-catching live performances. Performances by Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus stood out for precociousness and abrasiveness – but the culprit behind each reaction defied expectations.
Miley Cyrus’s performance of Wrecking Ball had an unexpected guest: a giant projection of a winking kitten. The unconventional backdrop provided an absurdist twist after audiences had come to expect Cyrus to spark controversy through sexual provocation. Miley matched the space-faring kitten with a two-piece outfit covered in kitten heads. The softness of the image was an intriguing counterpoint to Miley’s recent efforts to separate herself from her child-friendly Disney past.
While Miley’s stunt steered away from her streak of edgy appearances, Katy Perry’s performance was a surprising source of controversy. Perry opened the awards show dressed as a geisha, with backup dancers to match. She performed to a backdrop of taiko drummers and a mock Shinto shrine.
The costumes behind the rendition of “Unconditionally” have evoked chiding and debate. Many view Perry’s use of the traditional Japanese figure as cynical commercial exploitation of a culture, or even a modern form of Orientalism. The dialogue bears particular weight in the wake of accusations of cultural appropriation by Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus. As the dialogue evolves, a new line may be drawn between cultural diffusion and racial insensitivity.
Despite these incidents, the awards remained the center of attention. Taylor Swift was crowned Artist of the Year, riding high off the success of her fourth studio album Red. The 2013 awards mark her third victory, setting a new record for the award. Swift faced steep competition from Macklemore, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake. Macklemore received the most nominations of the night, narrowly edging out Swift’s five nominations with his six. Macklemore used his award speech to draw renewed attention to the Trayvon Martin shooting, dedicating his victory to “Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids who are dying each year due to racial profiling and the violence that follows.”
Pitbull demonstrated notable charisma throughout proceedings. His hosting was characterized by a positive attitude and light wit, two traits missing from too many hosts.