Even though Britney Spears has been on GMA and Jimmy Kimmel this year lazily performing songs from her latest album, it's been eons since anyone saw her attempt actual choreography. With her U.S. tour starting in less than a month, fans are inevitably wondering whether the mother of two still has it in her to do any serious hoofing.
If her two performances at Sunday's Billboard Music Awards are any indication, ticketholders for that tour should continue to set expectations low, since her moves weren't anything that would win her a spot on So You Think You Can Wiggle. As for whether she's gotten over her addiction to lip-synching, you're still much more likely to hear Kurt Cobain sing live this year than you are Britney.
Both of Spears' highly touted appearances on the Billboard Awards amounted to extended cameos, really. The three-hour telecast opened with Spears joining Rihanna nearly minutes into "S&M," entering with her wrists cuffed together with very long chains, just as Rihanna's were. The duet partners proceeded to suggestively writhe around separate poles before coming back together for a climactic pillow fight, as if to say, just kidding about the kinkiness! But Spears didn't even come off well in that skuffle, barely raising her pillow above waist level.
It may be time to institute a rule that, for live TV duets, either both parties lip-synch or both sing live, as to avoid glaring mismatches of the sort that found Rihanna clearly using her own pipes and Spears clearly years beyond caring if her mouth remotely matches her electro-bot studio recordings.
Which is not to say that Rihanna came out ahead in every regard. Before Spears came out, some of the moves that Rihanna shared with her dancers—or rather, her dancers' disembodied hands—were risible enough that it's as if her choreographer wanted to make sure the star's name and "class act" never appear in the same sentence again.
For the next two and a half hours, the show teased the reappearance of Spears, who eventually came out in the middle of a Nicki Minaj number. Well, "middle" is a misnomer: Britney actually came out to sing exactly 45 seconds of her current single, "Till the World Ends," while dancing every bit as energetically as in her first appearance—which is to say that she appeared to be conserving her energy for the tour. Or perhaps she thought, like some folks, that the world would be ending the previous day, and thus the lack of prep.
The show was notable largely for who didn't perform. Aside from her appearance in a commercial for a web browser, Lady Gaga was completely MIA—odd for an inveterate attention freak whose new album was coming out the very next day. Taylor Swift showed up to accept two awards and act as a presenter, but didn't sing, though presumably the start of her tour this week nixed the possibility of a production number. Justin Bieber also accepted two awards but apparently couldn't be coaxed into breaking into song.
Nevertheless, when Bieber kissed girlfriend Selena Gomez on the lips for the first time on live television, he at least provided the closest thing to a water-cooler moment. At least for viewers who are too young to have any idea what a water cooler is.
Older viewers do still have a couple of performances worth talking about at work the next day. Cee-Lo sang while sitting at a piano that first levitated and then did a slow 360-degree revolution in the air... with Cee-Lo still attached. Was it special effects, or was it Superglue?
Beyonce, the hardest working woman in show business, put enough work into her performance for herself and about 50 Britneys. At first, viewers may not even been sure that her appearance was live and not on film, since she was seen dancing in perfect unison with cloned images of herself that were clearly on tape. Soon enough it was obvious one of the images of her was not a projection but the real thing. Whether the typically impressive performance will be enough to get the masses to love her polarizingly unhummable new single, "Run the World (Girls)," remains to be seen.
But on this night of supposed winners, Beyonce was one of the few principles who came out clearly on the winning side. Not so with host Ken Jeong (The Hangover), whose pick as emcee had people wondering "who?" beforehand and "why?" afterward. As hosts go, he was pretty much the anti-James Franco, with his manic energy and utter commitment. But the opening comic production number with Minaj and Train's Pat Monahan fell flat, and it only got worse with Jeong challenging Keith Urban and Travis Barker to banjo and drum duels, respectively.
Also losing: everyone who wore sunglasses while performing, which at times seemed to be a majority of the billed artists. Taio Cruz makes great pop singles, but the shades only reinforced his utter anonymity as a live performer. When the shades-wearing Far East Movement were backed by a (presumably string-synching) female string quartet also wearing sunglasses, the ayes did definitely not have it.
Most notable bleeps? That would be a tie between Lil Wayne and U2. Weezy's brief rap during Mary J. Blige's number included five censor-able lyrics, at which point you might ask: Why bother having him show up? Meanwhile, any lessons learned by U2 after Bono got a network in trouble by swearing at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards were lost on the Edge, who had to be bleeped while making an innocuous remark while accepting an award for biggest live act.
Oddly, the three hours climaxed with a performance that didn't seem to belong to the same galaxy as anything that came before it: Neil Diamond performing a singalong medley of "Sweet Caroline" and "America." It would have been perfect if, as Diamond sang "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty," the producers had cut back to earlier highlights from the show, like Rihanna's "S&M" moves, to show just what makes America great.
Anyway, there was one thing that made the 2011 Billboard Awards great: the part in will.i.am's hair. This section of his noggin was electronically enhanced to glow a different color each of the three times he appeared on stage—pink, when the group did its inevitable medley of their 500 biggest hits; green, when he was introducing U2; and blue, when he accepted the Black Eyed Peas' award for duo/group. Will.i.am's speech was a curious one, including lines like "I thank technology, because without technology we wouldn't be here" (right before he worked in a plug for the computer company that employs him).
Will.i.am had a point, at least judging from all the tech-"enhanced" performances in the show. Now if technology could only re-teach Britney to dance.