Matt Sayles—Invision/AP
November 23, 2014 11:42 PM EST

Jennifer Lopez was the standout act of the American Music Awards this year. And nothing against Lopez, who’s been shoring up this awards show for years with energetic live performances, but that doesn’t speak well of the current crop of pop stars.

The 2014 American Music Awards were striking in how much they depicted a wide gulf between the recording industry’s top achievers and those who hope to get there someday. Stars including Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry (who won an award, accepting it via satellite!) didn’t deign to show up; their careers can go on without this promotional opportunity. (Taylor Swift did show up, but she’s taking a well-deserved victory lap for 1989, and she got a lifetime-achievement award out of the deal.) Meanwhile, Iggy Azalea seemed vaguely put-out in her acceptance speech and was largely on the sidelines in her duet with Lopez, while Ariana Grande and Sam Smith cautiously performed in exactly the same way they’ve been doing since their careers began, with a lot to recommend them and a lot to work on that hasn’t been worked on yet. (In Grande’s case, it’s enunciation; Smith’s beautiful voice can’t fully distract from his wooden arm movements.) MAGIC!, the Canadian reggae band of “Rude” fame, was also there.

That One Direction, a band whose first album came out in the U.S. in 2012, felt like veterans on the AMAs stage, performing a perfectly lovely rendition of “Night Changes,” spoke volumes both of the relative novelty of the acts involved, and their relative aptitude at being pop stars. The new crop of stars, including Smith, Grande, and Azalea, among others, seem to have missed out on the advantages their forbears enjoyed, which include the time to work out what one wants to be as an artist and the tools it requires to get there. Consider that Taylor Swift won a lifetime achievement award (that is, the Dick Clark Award for Excellence) for cultivating relationships with her fans and opened the show by specifically sending up her image — the sort of image that Grande et al. have yet to try to build. We can’t learn to love an artist if they’re as recessive as the new crowd tends to be.

The American Music Awards last year, by dint of who had recorded albums in the preceding months, featured performances by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus, all of whom bring to mind complex associations and who rely on elaborate stagecraft. This year’s performers tended to be simple; indeed, Nicki Minaj, one of the few veterans on the stage, made an impression by dialing back her theatrics. But in her case, it’s an earned privilege. Newer artists at the 2014 AMAs failed to give us much to latch on to; if they ever want the sort of success Perry and Cyrus enjoy, it’s about time to start taking risks. As we wait for that, there’ll always be Jennifer Lopez twerking.

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