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Rihanna Falls Flat, Underwood Steals Show At 46th Annual ACM Awards

Our Country

Although the 46th annual Academy of Country Music Awards Sunday evening boasted an unusually rich list of interesting moments/personalities/collaborations, there were two performances that took up the majority of preshow chatter. One of these was non-country superstar Rihanna dueting with Sugarland frontwoman Jennifer Nettles. The other, Carrie Underwood with a tantalizingly unnamed "surprise" partner on stage.

Needless to say, only one performance lived up to the considerable hype.

I won't keep you in suspense. It wasn't Rihanna's. Unfortunately, the pop diva's duet with Nettles--a rendition of Rihanna's ballad "California King Bed"--felt leaden at worst, overwrought at best, leading mostly to a sense of wondering who on earth thought this would be a good idea.

Nettles has dueted out of her home genre before (most recently with artists as diverse as MC Lyte and Keri Hilson) to good effect. There's no apparent reason the broadly appealing Rihanna would not be able to match wits with a country artist or audience. The song wasn't even performed at the awards show proper; it was part of a new "fan jam" feature of which highlights were fed into the ACMs telecast.

And yet...thumbs down. Nothing much else to say except a shrug of the shoulders; likely the duet would have been better if they'd attempted Sugarland's bubbly "Stuck Like Glue"--a song that seems made for a pop artist to cavort with--instead.

What did work: Carrie Underwood's surprise, which consisted of her morphing into a pink-haired rock chick opposite none other than Steven Tyler. The pair wrangled it out, stamping their respective boots fiercely, on Underwood's "Undo It" and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way."

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The result? The evening's unexpected and undisputed highest point. Underwood may have walked away empty-handed in terms of awards (after scoring big last year, winning the coveted Entertainer of the Year award)--but she hands-down stole the entire show anyway. 

Hitting the highest note of the evening was actually no easy feat, as the 2011 ACMs managed to be the most interesting show the Academy has produced in several years. Things started off on the right foot right away with the choice of Blake Shelton and Reba McEntire as cohosts. McEntire, a funny-but-safe choice who's a seasoned veteran at the hosting gig, was the perfect selection to balance first-timer Shelton, who's the "it-guy" in country music right now but has a history of being a bit off-color (he managed to control himself nicely for his debut hosting duties).

The show managed to rope in quite a few performances of note--a wider variety than most country music shows have been managing of late, although this probably has more to do with various artists' promotional timing than anything.

Big highlights included entertainer of the year nominee Brad Paisley with several members of iconic group Alabama, Taylor Swift playing banjo on her tune "Mean," the Zac Brown Band doing a medley with folk legend James Taylor, the newly solo Ronnie Dunn testing out how it feels to sing without Kix Brooks, and--in an especially touching moment--Darius Rucker performing a new song called "Music From The Heart" with a chorus of developmentally disabled songwriters.

That was a long list, right? Almost long enough to overshadow the real reason for the evening: The awards, which were far less surprising than the performances. Not shockingly, girl-of-the-moment Miranda Lambert led the way with four wins, including top female vocalist and a string of wins for her single "The House That Built Me." What was somewhat shocking: She lost Entertainer of the Year to Taylor Swift.

Swift herself seemed a bit surprised at the coup, an award which is wholly fan-determined.

Aside from Lambert and Swift's moments--Brad Paisley won top male vocalist for the fifth year in a row, Lady Antebellum won album and vocal group honors, and the Band Perry took home the fan-voted new artist of the year honors.

Were you surprised by any of the performances or wins/losses you saw at the ACM Awards? Be sure to let me know what's on your minds.

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