Bieber Love and Old Blood: Behind the Scenes at 2012's American Music Awards

SPIN braves the press room at 40th anniversary event see how the pop machine ticks from the inside

gangnam style mc hammer psy amas 2012
MC Hammer and PSY field questions in the press room / Photo by Chris Martins
Chris Martins WRITTEN BY
Chris Martins

Brandy plays World of Warcraft and Justin Bieber is kind of amazing. Oh, and EDM "is the hottest new thing in music," if you didn't know. Devote your pre-Thanksgiving Sunday to the 40th Anniversary American Music Awards, and this is the sort of knowledge you will gain. SPIN went to the mountain, and when we asked Cyndi Lauper what her hopes were for music in 2013, she toddled forward and dipped backward like some sort of New Wave shaman before answering thusly: "Music." Clearly, not all revelations are created equal.

It should be noted that while we visited with Mrs. Lauper on the red carpet outside of Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre, the aforementioned mount was actually the top of the facility's West Garage — yes, an open-air parking barracks covered with a massive canopy, fitted with a complex matrix of curtains-as-walls, and converted into the bustling home of the AMAs press corps. It was from here that we watched the entire show — within an ambience we're dubbing "triage luxe" — whilst waiting for artists to climb up and join us.

The last of those were Korea's PSY and his surprise "Gangnam Style" dance partner MC Hammer, who explained his bizarre return from obscurity in all 2 legit terms: "Only four times has a solo dancer shifted the planet: James Brown, Michael Jackson, yours truly, and then PSY." Indeed, for spectacle their performance was the night's big winner. So much so that Brandy, who'd revealed her late-night MMORPG addiction in a Q&A earlier, snuck back into the reporters containment zone and leaned over our shoulders to watch on our TV.

Despite Happy Endings actress Elisha Cuthbert's declaration about electronic dance music — she presented the genre's inaugural award — EDM's big moment was a bust. Winner David Guetta accepted from Brazil via satellite and it should have gone to Skrillex anyhow, since he was the only nominee who didn't ride in on a major pop collab (also in the running: Calvin Harris). Bieber even pulled the dubstep out of "As Long as You Love Me" to deliver a genuinely stunning, strum-backed, melismatically massive rendition of the song.

At the risk of sounding like a Belieber, the kid earned his "artist of the year" win, even if his subsequent performance of "Lonely Girl" with a spandex-wrapped Nicki Minaj — looking ever more like the Rap Game Stifler's Mom — was a reminder of his status as the unholy progeny of all five Backstreet Boys. (They too were there, but reneged on a promise to save SPIN some carpet time.) In this fan-vote-fueled contest, the Biebz may have gotten a bump from MILF-types. Presenter Jenny McCarthy pawed him mightily on his way to the podium.

"I did grab his butt," she told us later in press quarantine. "I'm single but I think that's cougar rape, if you ask me. I couldn't help it. He was just so delicious. So little. I wanted to tear his head off and eat it." A tabloid reporter trolling for trends asked the actress/comedienne what toys or products her son wanted for Christmas. Awesomely, she shouted out "two-by-fours and blankets," adding, "so there isn't a brand necessarily." When pressed about her outfit, she revealed: "Dolce & Gabbana, those rich assholes."

Minaj also did new one "Freedom," but despite her seemingly increasing proportions, she gave one of the flattest gigs of the night. Her winter wonderland stage set was the chilly equivalent of Frank Ocean's VMAs fireside bummer. And when she went up to accept — for favorite rapper and best rap LP — she seemed lost in narcotic wooze, vacillating between a drawn Fran Drescher waaah and rapidfire rapper speak. She never came to the garage, but there was an unused placard with her name on it next to our small stage.

But by and large the performances were huge, and we should've asked the producers back instead of the talent, pelted them inane questions from within our alien autopsy tent before they shuffled over to the "room" where gorillas with cameras scream their names and blind them with bursting lights. Ke$ha might not have remembered all her lines, but she looked like a cult queen doing "Die Young." Kelly Clarkson's four-song medley was set up to mimic her rise from TV Idol to IRL star. Taylor Swift was the belle of an elaborate masquerade ball.

Make that "T-Swizzle," since her charming labelmates in Florida Georgia Line revived her nom de rap when they announced Swift's arrival in honor of "hurr new owlbum Reeeyyyd." As car-wreck enticing as is to watch Ne-Yo and WWE wrestler Stacy Keibler tag-team the hip-hop album category, the AMAs showrunners kept presenters' parts short (a sentence split between two celebs) and skipped on a host entirely. Instead they crammed in 17 performances, and gifted Christina Aguilera with a large lady who bounced her breasts with flexing power before dropping into the splits.

And despite all the weird shit we were subjected to — Pitbull's Lou Bega-on-steroids act, Will.i.am's fanged hat (would that it could eat his face!), a guy from the Rej3ctz teaching the press how to do the "Cat Daddy," and that part where Carrie Underwood told us, "I couldn't love my life any more than I do right now" — it's this moment, a plump woman's badassery, that elicits the most groans from our peers. Did they not see Bieber tugging at his saggy crotch every two seconds? (Worst AMAs drinking game, by the way.) Or Pink lifting a 200-pound muscleman?

Our biggest sigh came with the mishandling of the rock category via Scandal actress Kerry Washington and Olympian cum reality star Apolo Ohno. Her: "Some people call it alternative, some people call it modern." Him: "Whatever you call it, it rocks."  Their deadpan delivery underscored the award's perfunctory nature: only at the AMAs could such wildly different artists as Gotye, the Black Keys, and Linkin Park beef for the same statue. The night's two rock performers, No Doubt and Linkin Park, both heritage acts in this context, performed and jetted.

But would new blood be so bad? When Usher took fave "soul/R&B male," the off-camera voice announced, "He's won the last three years in a row!" As if that's something the AMAs should be proud of. He took the mic and halfheartedly stumbled over his words before rushing out, "Teamwork makes the dream work," and thanking his "financial team." Back in the parking garage, when asked the secret to his longevity, Usher answered in a riddle: "The longer you do it, the more of an example you can set."

We'd been there all day, set no examples that we knew of, and had no reason to express gratitude to the clerks at our local B of A. We saw the many shades of pop, and heard dubstep drops in each, while the guy who inspired them got snubbed. In a land of full of shamans full of declarative statements, the wisest may actually be the one who says all he needs with a dance. When Usher was done, he shouted "Peace!" and happily moonwalk off our riser. We understood. Somewhere, Brandy was sittin' up in her room, waiting for us in the Mists of Pandaria.

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