“I don’t understand award shows!” Kanye West declared last night with real agony in his voice during a long, emotional speech at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles. He was there to pick up the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, but had other worries on his mind. So if Yeezy himself is at a loss at the meaning of these ceremonies after winning 21 Grammys, multiple Moonmen, American Music Awards and other amazing prizes, how are the rest of us to cope?
By the end of two and a half hours inside the Microsoft Theatre, we had our own questions about this year’s VMAs show.
1. Did host Miley Cyrus think offering mild criticism to Nicki Minaj in a New York Times interview wouldn’t mean facing some wrath on show night?
Taylor Swift already learned not to argue with Minaj over her complaints about why “Anaconda” wasn’t nominated for the top prize, and the two made up enough to perform last night in matching red. When Minaj picked up Best Hip-Hop Video soon after, she threw the show back to Cyrus with a sneer and a smile, savoring the moment: “And now, back to this bitch who had a lot to say about me the other day in the press: Miley, what’s good?” The host was caught off-guard but didn’t crumble. She offered a refreshing perspective that might even help Kayne, recalling her loss two years before for Best New Artist: “Whatever. Because it’s no big deal! It’s just an award!”
2. Where was the rock?
Pop and hip-hop now clearly dominate the VMAs. Proof enough of MTV’s dim view of guitars in 2015 was that the once-prominent Best Rock Video award was handed out quietly in the pre-show (to Fall Out Boy for “Uma Thurman”). Later in the telecast, newcomer Tori Kelly did deliver a fiery “Should’ve Been Us,” wailing and slashing at a guitar. And Cyrus brought out Oklahoma avant-gardists Flaming Lips and some RuPaul’s Drag Race dancers for her new song “Dooo It.” But the days when Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain were engaged in metal vs. grunge stare-downs at the MTV gathering are a long, long time ago.
3. Should so many of the best moments be somewhere else?
Inside the Microsoft Theatre, ticket-holders were watching some of the most memorable performances on TV like the rest of you. Blocks away beneath the marquee of the old Orpheum Theatre, things got ramped up early as cameras followed Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performing their new single “Downtown” with hip-hop originators Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel. Later, Pharrell took the outdoor stage for a soaring “Freedom.” Meanwhile in the main room, guests sipped champagne and ate popcorn and M&Ms while watching the jumbotrons like they were at an oversized Super Bowl party.
4. If Kanye is really running for president in 2020, and presumably running against President Trump, can he be his own running mate?
5. Just why was Justin Bieber crying?
Bieber’s comeback performance of “Where Are U Now” at the VMAs began with the singer in a tango with a two-man camera crew, capturing his every dance step up close and blocking everyone’s view inside, until they were chased off the stage by his dancers. The song ended with Bieber soaring abruptly into the air on wires, twirling high above the stage, then landing and pausing to shed a few real tears. Was he caught up in the emotion of his comeback, or just afraid of heights?
6. Can we throw out the script?
Along with the musical performances, the most memorable moments at the 2015 VMAs were of the spontaneous and unscripted variety: Minaj vs. Cyrus, Kanye vs. the world, Miley flashing the camera, etc. Compare those with the bit when actor O’Shea Jackson Jr. and his dad Ice Cube prepared to present Video of the Year, and Jackson read a manufactured father-son moment on the teleprompter: “Thanks, Dad,” he recited awkwardly, “I gotta say it was an honor to play you in Straight Outta Compton.” Any old-school rapper could have told the producers: Freestyle is best.
7. How about more crowd, less control?
The audience inside the VMAs were split between young fans up front lucky enough to score tickets and the rest of the big room soberly watching from further back, and their reactions throughout the night couldn’t have been greater. As Kanye made his speech, the cheers TV viewers heard were mostly from the kids in front, while much of the rest stood, watched and cringed, mouths open. Most screams for Bieber’s appearance also came from the kids. One exception was when comic Rebel Wilson’s routine using police brutality bombed — it bombed equally around the room.
8. Can Miley come back next year?
The host signed off with a warm “Thank you for tuning into the fucking VMAs! I’ll see you next year!” Not every joke, pre-recorded skit and costume change landed, but there was a welcome spontaneous energy in the room this year. Leading into one commercial break, the announcer said, “And later, what will Miley wear next?” Turned out, not much. After Cyrus accidently flashed a nipple from backstage, she said, “Oh, sorry,” as the camera nervously veered away. But what viewers at home didn’t see (and the theater audience witnessed on the big screens) was that Cyrus then stepped out completely topless, arms raised, unapologetic and proudly careless — qualities that have always led to the best moments on the VMAs.