Most Emotional Moment: Lady Gaga
What’s a Gaga performance without a dovetailing social campaign? She dedicated her heartfelt independence anthem ”Hair” to 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a fan who recently committed suicide after being bullied for his sexuality. When she exhorted the crowd, ”Let’s do this one for Jamey,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the arena.
Best Comeback: Jennifer Lopez
On the short list of diva essentials: shirtless male dancers, a red-hot fringe-and-feathers getup with bedazzled cane, a golden throne. Lopez brought that and more, pulling out all the sexy stops for her dripping-in-decadence set, which included hits old (”I’m Real,” ”Jenny From the Block”) and new (spring ’11 smash ”On the Floor”).
Wildest Entrance: Nicki Minaj
Leave it to the queen of hip-hop outrageousness to inject a little extra flair: The raptress rolled on stage via a dolly, Hannibal Lecter-style, sporting white-blond Afro puffs and accompanied by a cadre of demented-doctor dancers — and then tore through ”Roman’s Revenge,” ”Moment 4 Life,” and ”Super Bass.”
Kookiest Threesome: Steven Tyler, Nicole Scherzinger, and Randy Jackson
Despite working for opposing singing-competition shows, the two American Idol judges played nice with The X Factor‘s Scherzinger, serving up a silly-fun performance of Tyler’s ”(It) Feels So Good,” with Jackson on bass.
Biggest Country Star: Kenny Chesney
Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts brought their A game, but Chesney hog-tied them all with his high-octane performance, which included catalog favorites ”Beer in Mexico” and ”Somewhere With You.”
Sweetest Cover: Bruno Mars
Like he did at August’s VMAs, Mars sang Amy Winehouse’s ”Valerie.” Even with the slight sense of déjà vu, his rendition was a standout in a hit-filled set (”Grenade,” ”Just the Way You Are,” ”The Lazy Song”).
Best Gymnastics: Coldplay
Frontman Chris Martin dropped to the ground for a spontaneous somersault during the rousing close of ”Viva la Vida,” then pleased fans further with melodic new single ”Paradise.”
Odd Pair Out: Karmin
Every act on the bill has had chart-toppers except the coed duo, who made their mark via covers on YouTube. So their inclusion on the roster seemed to garner a rippling ”Huh?” from the crowd when they performed Minaj’s ”Super Bass” and Chris Brown’s ”Look at Me Now.”
Hottest Surprise Guest Star: Usher
French DJ David Guetta’s spin through recorded versions of his hits — including ”Where Them Girls At,” ”Memories,” and ”When Love Takes Over” — was a little sad sans live vocals from the songs’ guest artists. That is, until Usher popped out unexpectedly to deliver their high-impact collab ”Without You.”
Strangest Omission: Alicia Keys
Her velvety set ran through a driving ”No One” and the debut of wrenching new track ”A Place of My Own,” but something was missing: ”Fallin’.” Fests like this just require the signature songs. Blessedly, Keys atoned by returning to the stage with Jay-Z for the anthemic ”Empire State of Mind.” Forgiven!