Ashes to ashes, dust to MTV. Everybody at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards who wasn't Beyoncé looked embarrassed to be there – and quite honestly should have been. It was like the old joke: "Besides that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" Because Beyoncé Wilkes Booth stormed into an award show that was a festering plague swamp of poodle vomit, planted her flag and set the whole thing on fire with a 16-minute stomp through the Lemonade songbook, one of the most blood-chillingly great live performances in award-show history. In "Hold Up," she grabbed a baseball bat, swung it into the camera, then slammed her bootheel down right in front of the cracked lens. At the end, she sat in a ring of fire, grieving that she had no worlds left to conquer, while her squad of dancers formed a woman symbol on the stage. After Bey, how was anybody supposed to get excited about the Chainsmokers?
That's where the VMAs should have ended – and probably also where they should have begun. Because aside from the queen, this year's show was a glum little mess. MTV persuaded some celebs to show up – Rihanna, Kanye, Britney, Chance – yet the whole thing felt like a tragic charisma void. The Chainsmokers came on like a couple of singing waiters doing "Edge of Heaven" cosplay at the next Wham!-Con. Alicia Keys recited her poetry in honor of Martin Luther King. ("We gotta twist it in this lucid dream!") Poor Kim Kardashian had to read the words "it's Britney, bitch" off a teleprompter (perhaps not the most efficient use of Kim's skill set – let's just say Future wasn't the only one who fucked up some commas), while poor Mary J. Blige was forced to praise Rihanna's "distinctive voice" and "singing chops." Presenters kept uttering sub-AMAs-grade prattle about New York City ("the greatest city in the world!") and introducing performers as "my friend." It all felt a little small time.
Drake missed accepting his award because he was "stuck in traffic," which means either he was driving his girl to her bar exam through the snow or he took a peek at the red-carpet pre-show and decided there was no way he was suffering through chitchat with Charlemagne and DJ Khaled. (Where have you gone, Sway?) Puff Daddy accepted on his behalf, looking good in a Lindsey Buckingham-style kimono ("I ran out of stuff to wear," he explained). MTV foolishly let Puffy leave the stage instead of begging him to stay and host, which would have guaranteed some laughs. Instead, Key and Peele seemed to get drafted into host duties, as if MTV had nobody else on hand capable of uttering a non-stupid word into a microphone.
Rihanna performed in pink gear looking like the love child Missy Elliott and Aaliyah should have had, holding a microphone and occasionally singing a line or two into it just in case anybody needed help figuring out which dancer was Rihanna. Since she was receiving this year's Video Vanguard lifetime-achievement award, stars got wheeled out all night to pay respects (Naomi Campbell, throw your phone and take a bow!), culminating when Drake swept in at the end in his prom tux. He gave her a fond tribute, confessing he'd always been in love with her, and leaned in for a kiss that RiRi cleverly dodged – as if we needed more proof of this woman's brilliance.
Britney returned to perform at the VMAs for the first time since her 2007 "Gimme More" debacle, doing the ninth-best song from her excellent new album, but it looked like a mean trick making her go on right after Beyoncé's 16-minute rampage. It brought back traumatic memories of 2011, when MTV gave her the Video Vanguard award but totally sabotaged the moment – they gave Brit just a few seconds of screen time, then made her introduce Beyoncé, who took the occasion to announce her pregnancy. Some tribute. Once again, MTV put our girl in an impossible position, especially since her performance turned out to be a G-Eazy showcase with Britney in a measly supporting role. Shameful treatment, really.
It was a strange night all around. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj did an aerobicized "Side to Side" – though as Ariana/Nicki duets go the prize is still "Get on Your Knees." Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps introduced Future with the words, "As a music fan I'm so excited to be here," which probably means he hasn't seen much MTV lately. Halsey confided it's her dream to win the Video Vanguard award because "it's a massive reflection of you putting a lot of stock into your artistic integrity with your videos," and added, "I smoke a lot of weed." The Best New Artist award went to a JoBro. Tove Lo and Bebe Rexha did a hilarious technical-awards interlude, revealing, "There's a whole team behind the scenes of these groundbreaking works of art!" They gave the Best Art Direction prize to David Bowie's "Blackstar" – the only time Bowie got mentioned all night (which was once more than Prince). As for the VMAs' traditional token-rock-band slot that goes to Twenty One Pilots or 5 Seconds of Summer, this year it went to nobody.
Kanye's speech was hyped in advance as four minutes of Wacky Kanye Ego Madness, but it turned out to be a meek bit of product placement, introducing a cheesoid video MTV will never play again. "My name is Kanye West and that feels really good to say, especially this year," he said, bobbling between references to the Chicago murder rate and awkward jokes about Ray Jay and Amber Rose. He announced, "My role models are artist merchants. There's less than 10 that I can name in history: Truman [Harry S.? Capote?], Ford [John? Gerald? Lita? Willa?], Hughes, Disney, Jobs, West." Poor Stanley Kubrick – exiled so soon from the Yeezy canon.
One of the night's big winners: Taylor Swift, whose shrewd decision to go nowhere near this shitshow was a reminder that actual stars do help make award galas more stellar. Because as she must have known, this was strictly Beyoncé's night, and Beyoncé made everybody else who set foot onstage look like a sniffly child. Taking the high road as always, she made a point of thanking "my incredible husband" (not that Jay Z was anywhere to be seen – how we all miss the "what up B"/ "What up Jay" banter of VMAs past) and dedicated her award to the people of New Orleans. And during the quarter-hour that Bey ruled the screen, venting middle-fingers-up hostility and shrouds-of-loneliness pain, taking risks and making demands, her intensity blew even the best of the other performers away. For a few minutes there, this was a show. Her show.