Mariah Carey, in the midst of a career comeback, had gone into the evening's competition the heavy favorite with a leading four nominations, but the pop diva took home only one award, for favorite female artist in the soul-R&B category.
"Thank you so much for the warmth and the love," she said as she accepted the evening's first award moments after opening the show with a rousing rendition of "Don't Forget About Us." Carey, who appeared in a sequined, silver, spaghetti-strap gown slit to the waist, had to quickly change into a black evening gown before accepting her award.
The show was as much about those who didn't show up as those who did. Many of the night's biggest names, including Green Day, Black Eyed Peas, Eminem, Kelly Clarkson and 50 Cent, were nowhere to be seen.
Notable moments provided by those who were there included an inspired pairing of Cyndi Lauper and Sarah McLachlan for a soulful version of Lauper's 1980s hit "Time After Time."
The rapper Pharrell, Gwen Stefani and the Eurythmics also took to the stage, and the Rolling Stones closed the show with a two-song performance from Salt Lake City, wrapping up the evening with a spirited rendition of "It's Only Rock&Roll (But I Like It)."
Stefani, who bested out Carey for the favorite female pop artist award, barely had time to get to the podium after completing her performance.
"What did I win?" she asked as she was presented her first American Music Award. "I guess whatever I won, I just want to say thank you to the fans, especially all my girls. Imagine what it feels like to be me all these years and have your support. It's just outrageous."
McGraw roped in both awards in the country category in which he was nominated. He came out ahead of Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith for favorite male artist and his album, "Live Like You Were Dying," beat albums by Keith and Gretchen Wilson, who took the honor for country female artist.
The Black Eyed Peas earned favorite group honors in both the rap/hip-hop and pop-rock categories.
Rapper 50 Cent's album, "The Massacre," won the favorite rap/hip-hop album honor, while Missy Elliott took home the favorite female artist award in the rap/hip-hop category for the second year in a row.
"I got to thank God because that's my inspiration for everything that I do," Elliott said. She also dedicated the award to the late singer Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash shortly after takeoff in 2001.
Actor-singer Will Smith won favorite male artist in the pop-rock division, edging out Rob Thomas and 50 Cent, while R. Kelly edged Omarion and John Legend for favorite soul-R&B male artist.
Shakira, who picked up the favorite Latin music artist award, praised the trend toward the presentation of more Spanish music on U.S. radio.
"I can only say that when a Spanish song gets played on Top 40 American radio, it means the pseudo rules of the industry are changing," she said. "America is a cross-cultural open country and music is a language on its own."
Destiny's Child was two-thirds absent, as only singer Kelly Rolland was on hand to accept the group's awards.
"This feels very awkward being up here by myself," she said as she accepted the favorite band award in the soul-R&B category. "I miss my girls, Beyonce and Michelle, wherever you are. I love you so much."
In a cross-genre category, country group Sugarland bested alternative rockers The Killers and singer Jesse McCartney for breakthrough new artist.
In awards presented off-camera, Green Day won favorite artist in the Alternative category and the band's album, "American Idiot," received the pop-rock category honor.
Eminem won the favorite male artist in the rap/hip-hop division, while Clarkson received the honor for favorite artist in the adult contemporary category.
Nominees were chosen on the basis of record sales, with winners selected through a survey of about 20,000 listeners.
Comedian Cedric The Entertainer hosted the three-hour ceremony, broadcast live on ABC from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
He took to the stage wearing a grey pinstripe suit and holding a boombox that he dubbed the first iPod. He quickly noted that new versions of Apple Computer Inc.'s digital music player seem to be coming out all the time and getting smaller and smaller.
"I got the new Apple Tic-Tac. It freshens your breath and plays one song," he joked.
The scene on the red carpet before the show reflected the hodgepodge of musical genres being honored at the AMAs, with hip-hop, pop and country stars making their way through the gauntlet of press.
"It's an American quilt," said Lauper, who arrived in a black dress with sheer sleeves and a fringed hem.
She and McLachlan exchanged compliments backstage after the rousing response they received for their duet on "Time After Time," which was co-written by Lauper.
"'Time after Time' is one of the best pop songs ever written, in my opinion. It's an incredible, beautiful, timeless song," McLachan said.