At rehearsals this week for the 36th Annual American Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre, one of the key executives for the show gushed that Sunday night's broadcast will have 19 performances, a record number: "We called everyone on our dream list and they all said 'Yes,' so we just had to make room!" That effusive appraisal was met with a smile and a shrug by graybeard Al Schwartz, a consulting producer who has worked on the show since the Nixon administration.
"Well, it is a great year, but the stars are coming because they need it more than ever. Albums don't sell like they used to. And even with the stars we have a tough fight ahead of us: There's the premiere of '24' and there's football on."
These are strange days for traditional music awards shows. The recording industry is still reeling, the concert-touring business is in retreat and television audiences have made it quite clear that their fascination lies with shows that create new celebrities, not the ones that honor existing stars.
In 2006, "American Idol" hammered the first hour of the Grammy Awards in head-to-head ratings competition. The following year the producers of the grand old awards show responded by reluctantly adding an imitation "Idol" competition component to the broadcast.
"Idol" also has sapped the AMAs of one of their defining traits, their proudly populist heritage; when the AMAs started in 1974, it was the show where music-buying fans picked the winners, not some rarefied academy. But if you can't beat them, book them: The AMAs are dotted with past "Idol" contestants, with David Cook, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Chris Daughtry and David Archuleta all attending as nominees, presenters or both.
"It's hard to describe how much things have changed," said Schwartz, who took over as producer of the AMAs in 1974 but retired and became a consulting producer in recent years. "When I started it was Helen Reddy and Lou Rawls and now that seems like a very long time ago when you listen to the music today. But the role of the show is just as different too."
This year the stars are rushing to the AMAs and making the most of their stage time, especially with the all-important holiday sales season ramping up. Not only is there a record number of performers, but the broadcast on ABC also will have a bit of a throwback approach by including medleys, that old variety show stand-by. Christina Aguilera, for instance, will open the show with a "sampler" of her new greatest hits album, "Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits," which is being sold exclusively through Target stores and the retail giant's website and features 10 hits and two new songs.
That sort of retail deal is another of sign of the times, especially for veteran artists, such as the Eagles, who are up for the artist of the year award on Sunday night on the strength of their success with "Long Road Out of Eden," which came out in October 2007 and until last week was sold only at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and the band's website. The Eagles will be a rare bird on Sunday night because of combined factors of their age, gender and rock heritage. This show skews very young and female, and if you need a reminder of that, not only will Miley Cyrus be there to sing, she'll be celebrating her 16th birthday, a fact that will very likely be acknowledged with a surprise of some sort during the broadcast.
There won't be many guitar heroes on stage (Coldplay, the Fray and the Jonas Brothers are the extent of the live rock for the show) and even less rap, with Kanye West the only pure rapper scheduled, and his new music is clearly straining that description of his sound. Twelve of the 19 announced performers are female, among them Beyonc, Mariah Carey, Pink, Taylor Swift, Leona Lewis, the Pussycat Dolls and Natasha Bedingfield. Bedingfield, during rehearsals on Thursday, said that music feels wide-open right now, making it a great time to be a fan.
"There is this feeling now that anything can happen, and it is extraordinary, isn't it? For me to come a show like this, where Annie Lennox is performing and where Aretha Franklin is here, well that's just amazing to think about because these are people I've admired my whole life," said the British singer who turns 27 next week. "Right now in music it seems to be going back to people who actually perform, people are more organic and not just about dancing. With people like Amy Winehouse and Coldplay, you have more substance."