Beyoncé didn't go to the Billboard Music Awards. Neither did Jay-Z, or Drake, or Solange. There was no elevator incident at Sunday night's music awards ceremony, and though Kanye got on the stage it wasn't to fight about who should receive an award, because who won the awards didn't matter at all.
Held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the 2015 Billboard Music Awards had a lineup that rivaled its three biggest competitors—the Grammys, the AMAs and the VMAs—in talent. Hozier, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, John Legend, Iggy Azalea, and Britney Spears all performed full sets during the show, but the show lacked something—heart.
America loves pop music. There are not one, not two, but three pop music award shows in a year — not to mention the Country Music Awards, BET Awards and so on. But the Billboard Music Awards still haven't figured out an exact audience. They don't have the clout of the Grammys, the young viewership of the AMAs, or the VMA's history of provocation.
On a night when the Billboard awards had to compete with the season finale of Mad Men, a new episode of Game of Thrones, and the Keeping Up with the Kardashian's Bruce Jenner special, there really wasn't any reason not to change the channel.
A catchy hook can only take you so far
For weeks, the main draw of the Billboard Music Awards was a publicity stunt: The premiere of Taylor Swift's new music video for "Bad Blood." She posted movie-like posters teasing the video on Twitter and recruited dozens of co-stars for the clip, including Kendrick Lamar, Selena Gomez, Ellen Pompeo and Lena Dunham.
Swift, easily the biggest name in popular music right now, took home 8 Billboard awards and was seated front and center at the show, with an entire squad of her friends, including her brother Austin Swift, and her current beau electronic artist Calvin Harris. Instead of drawing out the show's biggest selling point until hour two or three — to keep viewers interested — "Bad Blood" aired at the beginning, at 8:00 p.m. sharp, the minute the show began.
The biggest moment of the night happened immediately, and was then uploaded to YouTube almost instantly, where Swift fans could watch without giving Billboard a moment of their time.
Viewership numbers for the 2015 awards haven't been released yet, but the 2014 show, with 10.5 million viewers according to Nielsen, was the most popular Billboard Music Award show in history. In 2015, the AMAs boasted 12.9 million viewers, up from 10.1 in 2014, only slightly behind the Billboards. The 2014 VMAs only had 8.3 million viewers, which made the Billboard Awards the second most popular music award show in the country in 2014. (None of these shows, of course, came close to touching the 28.5 million people who tuned in for the the 2014 Grammys or the 25.3 million who watched the 2015 Grammys )
What made 2014 such a huge year for the Billboard Music Awards was a holographic dancing image of Michael Jackson, which performed "Slave to the Rhythm" from his posthumously released album "Xscape." This skewed the show toward a slightly older audience, one that isn't already catered to at the VMAs, AMAs, and the Grammys. The show remained in line with 2013 numbers for the key 18-49 year old audience, and the Nielsen ratings show that the growth in viewership was among the age demographic older than 49.
That's a trick that the awards obviously tried to replicate again last night by inviting Molly Ringwald and Simple Minds to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Breakfast Club by playing "Don't You Forget About Me."
No controversy? No passion.
The biggest problem the Billboard Music Awards has, though, is one it has absolutely no way of fixing. Unlike the Grammy Awards and the VMAs, the winners of the Billboard Music Awards win simply by popularity. Finalists are based on chart performance, which is calculated based on sales, number of downloads and total airplay.
There are no votes, which means there's nothing to fight about. The Grammys has inherent controversy baked into it because it claims that one person's art is better than another person's art. Just this year, there was huge backlash over whether Beck truly believed to beat Beyoncé for Album of the Year. The VMAs, too, are known for controversy: For years they've been a place for outlandish behavior — Britney Spears kissed Madonna at the VMAs, and Miley Cyrus tweaked on Robin Thicke. And the AMAs currently have the highest teen viewership of the four, which is a huge plus for advertisers.
The Billboard Music Awards have been around since 1989 (only five years after the launch of the VMAs), but they have none of the clout and none of the passion. Instead, the Billboard Music awards are a place where artists go because they were told to, or they need to promote something.
This was evident in the tone of the performances. With the exception of Minaj's performance of "Hey Mama" with David Guetta and the melody by the Empire cast, none of the performances had any heart. Chris Brown and Pitbull strolled around the stage for four minutes, Wiz Kalifa jumped around, and Megan Trainor crooned.
Music is a business just as much as an art form. There are contracts signed, and battles over money. There are numbers that matter more than any ground-breaking heart-pounding lyric or tear-inducing melodies. That's what the Billboard Music Awards remind us: That even though we want music to be soulful and passionate and exciting, sometimes it's really just a business.
And that's why it was so easy to change the channel.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.