Katy Perry opened Sunday's American Music Awards in geisha drag. Or maybe it was Madonna circa '99 drag. Either way, and as usual, her look and performance were tedious and bereft of personality. Perhaps Perry realized the best she could do was make Twitter users cluck their tongues, and inspire think pieces in which the word "problematic" would feature prominently.
Later, Justin Timberlake mocked the accent of Rihanna's mother, Monica Braithwaite, who had just handed her daughter the Icon Award. Then, Sarah Silverman told an ironically off-color joke before presenting Timberake with the Favorite Soul/R&B Album trophy for (gag) The 20/20 Experience: "There are three amazing nominees for Favorite Soul/R&B Album tonight. One: a white kid from The Mickey Mouse Club. Another: the son of the dad from Growing Pains. And the other: a strong, soulful Caribbean woman of color. I don't know who will win, but I do know who should find this most ironic if she loses." After the black girl didn't win, the first thing Timberlake said in his acceptance speech was: "Thank you, Sarah. That's the first time, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I can honestly say that's the first time I've ever been racially profiled by a white woman." Here is the perfect response to that:
When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis accepted the award for (snort) Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist, Macklemore pled to the audience to help end racial profiling a la that which enabled the death of Trayvon Martin. It's the right stance, and yet Macklemore sounded as fraudulently earnest as usual when he discusses such matters, assuming that merely telling people to do something about something is him doing his part.
We shouldn't (and we can't) force Justin Timberlake to stay out of R&B (as much as I'd like to most of the time). Artists will work in the traditions that speak to and through them—for better or for worse. But when you take them out of the vacuum of high art and good intentions and put them in front of an actual audience with preconceived notions about race, quality and accessibility, you end up with rock radio stations where the only rapper getting played is Eminem.
And you get Timberlake winning trophies over the likes of Bruno Mars, Miguel, and Rihanna, or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis beating Lil Wayne, Jay Z, and most ridiculously, Kendrick Lamar, whose rhymes are so intricate and devoid of cliches, they are at times initially impenetrable.
That these awards (or some of them) were voted by fans, through a specific survey and that the AMAs' criteria for choosing winners has traditionally been based on sales and airplay (rewarding the already rewarded) shows that the problem goes beyond the institution and bleeds into audience preference. No way should The 20/20 Experience or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have won shit over the bulk of their more creative and flat-out better competitors. Not in general, but especially not this year.