Pop CultureNovember 16, 2020

All hits, no gimmicks: The Spinoff reviews the Aotearoa Music Awards 2020

The erstwhile Vodafone Music Awards returned to Spark Arena last night with a new format – and a new Covid-inspired appreciation for the joys of live music. Here’s what Spinoff’s staffers thought.

There was a moment during the awards last night where I had a rare feeling (for 2020 anyway) of hope. Maimoa had just won best Māori artist, and with help from their supporters they brought a wave of joy down from the stands and onto the main floor with them. Then Jawsh685 performed his hit ‘Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)’ aided by his friends and the group Villette singing the Jason Derulo melody, with an entire stand of Manurewa High students going nuts for them. I wouldn’t have thought there was a single person over 22 among the rangatahi involved in both moments, and I felt such pride for them all.

As a veteran of these old awards, I loved, loved, loved the absence of the corporate sponsors. Generally, I thought the cultural integration was the best the awards had ever been. Some years ago they were asked by the Māori music and te reo sectors to engage more meaningfully with tangata whenua and this year it felt less like a gesture and more like part of the fabric – from the red carpet kapa haka welcome, to house band the Levites, to Six60 performing ‘Kia Mau ki tō Ukaipō’ with Angitū, to Stan Walker and his lil baby goddaughter (naaawwwww), to the inclusion of the te reo names for all the tohu, to the finale supergroup with Rob Ruha, Ria Hall, Troy Kingi, Bella Kalolo, and Kaaterama Pou (and more).

I’d love to see a line up of hosts that wasn’t all Pākehā but at least their reo was lovely; clearly they had all worked hard to get it right. At one point host Jesse Mulligan announced: “There would be no New Zealand music without te ao Māori” and my bro, never a truer word was spoken. And for the record I liked Jesse’s outfits, let the man live his Technicolor dreamcoat, Sam Brooks fantasy for one night a year.

The highlight of the whole night though was someone telling me I looked like Sade. I’d like to thank my bomb ass fake lashes that took way too long to put on for making this achievement possible. / Leonie Hayden

Stan Walker performs with his goddaughter at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards. (Photo: Stijl Ltd.)

This was only my third Music Awards, but they were by far and away my favourite. The Jools Holland-esque staging, which I’m a massive fan of in any context, made the show feel more like a celebration that everybody could take part in, rather than the usual tiered seating – famous people up the front, seatfillers down the back, paying plebs in the nosebleeds. Everybody had the best seat in the house for at least one of the performances (we had the best view for Six60’s knockout performance), which gave it an egalitarian, communal feel that I’ve never really felt at the awards before. Three and a half hours is long for a gig, any gig, so you might as well turn it into a party!

I have to give a shout out to the house band, The Levites, which performed songs from the six Hall of Fame recipients. They were songs from an impossibly wide range of genres and would be a challenge for anybody, but The Levites totally held their own against some of the biggest performances of the night. I never expected I would see Spark Arena rock out to Dinah Lee’s ‘Do the Blue Beat’, but we rocked out to the blue beat. We did the blue beat too, y’all. It was the dance to do!

Also: If your significant other doesn’t talk about you like Jesse Mulligan talks about The Beths, do they really love you? / Sam Brooks

Six60 perform with Angitū at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards. (Photo: Stijl Ltd.)

Last night showed New Zealand music isn’t letting the virus grind it down. As Six60 started their set with a ‘Fade Away’/’Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō’ medley, Jesse Mulligan stared down the barrel of the camera at our fellow countrymen watching from home. “Welcome to the first ever Aotearoa Music Awards,” he said, even though the awards had been going for a couple of hours already. The subtext was: this year is different. A kapa haka group joined New Zealand’s highest-selling act on the Spark Arena floor. Viewers’ patriotism was at an all-time high.

On a more local level, young kings Church & AP kicked off the night with a win for Best Hip Hop Artist and went on to perform their ode to Tāmaki Makaurau, ‘OHNINE’. Jawsh685, Breakthrough Artist of the Year, played his international banger ‘Savage Love (Siren Laxed Beat)’ to the screams of his Manurewa High classmates.

In 2020, audiences have been harder to access, but they’ve also been keener than ever. The Beths (Best Album, Best Alternative Artist, Best Group), L.A.B. (Best Roots, People’s Choice), and Benee (Single of the Year, Best Solo Artist, Best Pop Artist) have all sold out multiple massive shows this year. Even the artists who didn’t win their categories are making capital T Tunes; not a single dud in the line up. Paige, Stan Walker, Chaii – the number and variety of talent we saw is massive.

Other notable moments: Jesse Mulligan just really frothing for New Zealand music (he’s seen The Beths three times!), Stan Walker’s tiny goddaughter singing her lungs out, Benee moving too quickly for me to read her hairclips, Jawsh685 being really really tall (an absolute unit), finding out Z Energy does vegan saussie rolls. / Josie Adams

Tami Neilson performs at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards. (Photo: Stijl Ltd)

I did not attend the awards last night but have done several times before. My first thought while watching the televised show – now performed in the round, with every audience member in full view of the TV cameras – was how sad I was for all the industry peeps who could no longer sit at some back table getting sloshed while ignoring half the award announcements. Those were the days.

Once I came to grips with the new set up, I settled in for the screening and for the most part enjoyed myself. I must say it was a bit of a presenter upgrade when we plebs at home had to make the switch from The Edge TV (who knew that was a thing) to Three. And with the presenter upgrade we were also treated to one of the highlights of the night: Jesse Mulligan’s outfits. A solid C- from me, Jesse.

I will however dish out an A+ to Benee’s outfits and Stan Walker’s outfit. Just beautiful.

There is a suggestion that Jesse announcing The Beths instead of Six60 when the latter won the Highest Selling Artist award was some kind of planned joke. I can tell you that from the couch it actually appeared to be a massive blunder. Whatever the truth is, I love that Jesse is so obsessed with The Beths that he’ll announce them for awards they haven’t even won. His fandom was one of my favourite parts of the night. / Mark Kelliher

The Beths accept the Album of the Year award from Jesse Mulligan at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards. (Photo: Stijl Ltd.)

Although many of the changes to the format of the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards were likely dictated by the challenging commercial circumstances faced by the event this year (as well as the impacts and uncertainties of an ongoing pandemic, 2020 also marked the departure of Vodafone as naming sponsor), as I sat reflecting over a midnight Z Energy steak and cheese pie, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d just witnessed a necessary evolution.

The awards have grown in ambition and execution substantially over the last decade, but in recent years they’ve felt bloated and haphazard, with the music (and the musicians) often seemingly superseded by production values and celebrity hosts. This year was an apparent corrective to that – ”making it more about the music”, as Jesse Mulligan said – and for the first time in a long time, the resultant ceremony felt like an actually genuine celebration of Aotearoa music and the people who make it. No skits, no stunt hosts, just a tight 3.5-hour show featuring 19 extremely good performances, 20 awards, and very little dead air in-between. If life in a post-pandemic world means the music awards have to focus more on music and less on panel show punishers workshopping their absolute worst open mic material to an audience who mostly want to be listening to literally anything else, I reckon we’ll be alright. / Matthew McAuley

Keep going!