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Taylor Swift, ''Blank Space''
Welcome to the Swift-asylum, blandly handsome guy! Are you hungry? Have an apple! Whoopsies, you're dead. Taylor took the ''Darling I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream'' line literally in her live-action fairytale performance of the current No. 1 song in the country, ''Blank Space,'' bringing out poisoned fruit, flaming roses, pyro, and a whole lot of other theatrical props the Phantom of the Opera would not be mad at. Speaking of mad, Swift worked every ''Don't you know I'm loco?'' face she had; not fully SAG-card worthy in the acting department, but Meryl Streep is not who this crowd came to see. B+ —Leah Greenblatt
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Charli XCX, ''Boom Clap''/''Break the Rules''
Celebrating her long-awaited elevation to full pop-star status, Charli XCX took the stage appropriately dressed as a prom queen for a version of ''Boom Clap'' that was energized by her rock-leaning backup band. Then she ripped away the taffeta to reveal a black latex dominatrix outfit and brought out a bunch of Goths to circle pit during an amped-up take on ''Break the Rules.'' The self-immolating, set-smashing finale would have made Kurt Cobain crack a smile. A- —Miles Raymer
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Magic feat. Wyclef Jean, ''Rude''
The Canadian foursome brought on ''a real reggae legend'' (says Rita Ora, so it must be true) to double down on their infinitely lite-irie summer hit, which they will no doubt be performing on Carnival cruise lines for the next 47 years. But right now, they're on the AMAs wearing jazzy cardigans and dueting with a Fugee, and the Kardashians look very happy to see them, so life is good. B- —Leah Greenblatt
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5 Seconds of Summer, ''What I Like About You''
Usually 5 Seconds of Summer's frictionlessly polished take on pop punk gets by on the strength of their charm and haircuts, but their karaoke-style take on the Romantics' ''What I Like About You'' seemed basically pointless. They were also uncharacteristically forgettable at the VMAs. Maybe they should just skip the next awards show they're invited to play. D —Miles Raymer
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Imagine Dragons, ''I Bet My Life''
A strummy, Mumford-y beginning segued quickly into one of the Dragons' signature it-takes-a-village widescreen anthems (literally, there was a choir of maybe 15 extra voices onstage singing and jumping for sheer Dragon-y joy). It was all a little too straightforward to touch the impact of their Grammys performance in January; still, rock bands rarely get to be the ones who shine at shows like these, so ''fully competent'' is pretty high praise. B —Leah Greenblatt
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Sam Smith feat. A$AP Rocky, ''I'm Not the Only One''
It's always a pleasure to see A$AP Rocky jump onstage, but the fatal flaw in his verse on Smith's remix is the fact that he raps over the original's perfect, goosebump-inducing bridge. So, unfortunately, his appearance seemed almost as unnecessary as the chunky circle scarf he wore on stage. Smith, as usual, was angelic. B+ —Miles Raymer
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Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX, ''Fancy''/''Beg for It''
Iggy for President! Azalea took the podium in her best Olivia Pope power suit before stripping down for a Chicago-meets-''Cold Hearted'' set piece, all done in 50 shades of black, white, and grey. It all fell somewhere between dramatically sparse and just?sparse. B —Leah Greenblatt
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Lorde, ''Yellow Flicker Beat''
From claustrophobic beginning to lipstick-smearing end, Lorde's Hunger Games jam was the show's most awkward moment outside of every single award presentation. But if there's one thing the proceedings need—and one thing you can depend on Lorde delivering—it's a dose of bracing weirdness. A —Miles Raymer
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Ariana Grande feat. The Weeknd, ''Problem''/''Break Free''/''Love Me Harder''
Having done nearly every iteration of ''Problem'' on every stage in the continental U.S. this year, Grande decided to go the lady-sings-the-shoo-be-doo-blues route, ditching her go-go boots for a floor-length lace gown and turning her biggest hit plus ''Break Free'' into jazz-club standards, apparently with as few fully enunciated consonants as possible. Points for trying to switch it up, if not for execution. B- —Leah Greenblatt
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Pitbull, ''Don't Stop the Party''/''Fireball''/''Time of Our Lives''
At this point in his career Pitbull's basically emulating Las Vegas entertainers of the old school, and following that theme he ran through a workmanlike selection of hits with a bunch of pretty dancing ladies and some celebrity friends that justified his tux. C+ —Miles Raymer
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Selena Gomez, ''The Heart Wants What It Wants''
Dramatic voicemail recording. Barbed wire. Big, wet, Keane-painting eyes. This is Selena's Very Serious Ballad —it even earned a mouthed ''Thank you, Jesus'' mid-bridge—and If you weren't supposed to be adding the words ''Justin Bieber'' to the end of every lyric in this song, you were almost definitely doing it wrong. Try it: ''The bed's getting cold and you're not here/The future that we hold is so unclear?Justin Bieber.'' ''I'm not alive until you call/And I'll bet the odds against it all?Justin Bieber.'' Yep! If only it were a better song?Justin Bieber. C+ —Leah Greenblatt
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One Direction, ''Night Changes''
There's something perfectly on-the-nose about having One Direction do their most country song in the middle of a field made out of houseplants. Funny, too. B- —Miles Raymer
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Lil Wayne feat. Christina Milian, ''Start a Fire''/Nicki Minaj feat. Skylar Grey, ''Bed of Lies''
They're dating in real life, and there are lots of flame graphics on the backdrop, but where there's smoke—well, there wasn't a whole lot else in Christina and Weezy's just-fine performance of ''Start a Fire.'' Still, they did seem happy to be there. Maybe because they didn't have to stay long: Nicki came in mercifully fast, though she looked like something had deeply pissed her off right before she took the stage. (Poor lighting cues? Bad catering? A terrified production assistant will never tell.) Minaj rarely has to expend much effort to sound sharper than everyone else in the room, but tonight she just seemed bored, and bored is boring. B/B- —Leah Greenblatt
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Fergie feat. YG, ''L.A. Love (La La)''
It might be a bummer to see Fergie biting vocal styles from Iggy Azalea, who's the closest thing the music industry has to a new Fergie right now, but Fergie's never been shy about jumping someone else's train. Besides, her new single's an improvement over ''Fancy'' (which it unabashedly copies) in a number of ways, including its hint of dancehall inflection, the thematically appropriate inclusion of a YG verse, and the fact that it's actually DJ Mustard on the beat and not just an ersatz emulation. A- —Miles Raymer
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Garth Brooks, ''People Loving People''
People loving clapping—or just really loving that Garth asked them to clap, at least. The return of a country icon is no small thing, and his newest single is a solid ''oh whoa whoa'' anthem, if not a total stunner. Brooks earned one of the few genuine (and refreshingly analog) moments of the night when he got the crowd to sing along in a stompy a cappella. B+ —Leah Greenblatt
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Mary J. Blige, ''Therapy''
With all the hyperkinetic Jumbotron videos and stages full of dancers and potted plants, the goal of most of the night's performances was to overwhelm the audience into submission. Mary took the opposite track, playing on a tastefully underdone stage that kept the focus on her voice, the throwback blues melody of her Sam Smith-penned new single, and her ability to forge an intensely intimate connection with her audience, even if they're on the other end of a television broadcast. A —Miles Raymer
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Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj, ''Bang Bang''
Jessie J, so eclipsed by Nicki and the Case of the Uncooperative Dress at the VMAs this summer, would not be left in the corner this time; she came in strong with an aisle-stalking opener, stopping to shimmy-dance with Khloé Kardashian and Taylor Swift before ceding the stage to Ariana and Nicki (still angry, if you're wondering), also resplendent in Bond-girl gold. No set design to speak of, but everybody sounded good and nothing came off that wasn't supposed to and there was enough metallic lamé onstage to keep a Showgirls sequel in business for days so we say: Success! A- —Leah Greenblatt
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Jennifer Lopez feat. Iggy Azalea, ''Booty''
Butts butts butts. Butts butts butts butts. Space butts. Vogue butts. Sequined butts with polka dots. Butts rubbing on butts. Butt slapping. Butts shaking to salsa music. Dudes with butts. Butts butts butts. Butts butts butts. Butts. C+ —Miles Raymer