MTV's Video Music Awards thrive on big moments and big controversies — and last night's ceremony (the network's 31st) was light on both. Last year's show garnered massive ratings and massive amounts of chatter thanks to Miley's derriere, so this year was butt-tastic. But with no host, no Gaga, no Kanye, no Britney and no pythons, producers were left pushing two hours of brand-new artists they hope can become big stars… before the biggest star of them all arrived to make 'em all bow down. Here's how the night shook out, once the glitter settled.
In 16 minutes, Beyoncé easily obliterated the 120 that had come before. "MTV, welcome to my world," she proclaimed two songs into a 14-track sprint through her latest album, Beyoncé, that drew from her spectacular On the Run tour. Last year, Justin Timberlake worked up a sweat onstage for 15 minutes before accepting the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award; Bey did him one better (clocking in at 16 minutes) while simultaneously flicking off rumors of a troubled marriage by kissing her "beloved" Jay Z at the conclusion of the performance with their adorable daughter Blue Ivy in the tableau, too. But the real point of her appearance was to remind the world she breathes the rarified air of an elite set of artists who do more than sing and dance flawlessly: they visualize performances on a higher level, too. The artistry of her set, the precision of her choreography, the flawlessness of her vocals, the fierceness of her feminism (a word she spelled out in big, capital letters, lest anyone forget where she stands) — this was a next-level display of entertainment brilliance that MTV couldn't even cap off with a "goodnight!" The show ended because nothing was fit to follow Queen B.
Did the 2014 VMAs even happen? Unless you work for one of the brands that sponsored the show (and had their names repeated over… and over… and over again on-air), there wasn't a whole lot to cheer about at this year's event, a strangely somnambulant affair periodically interrupted by commercials. Sure, there were a few memorable moments — Miley allowing a homeless youth to accept her Video of the Year Award, Beyoncé's show-capping medley, Blue Ivy being adorable — but nothing on Sunday night truly broke through in a big way. MTV will be lucky if people are still talking about the show next week, let alone next year. The whole thing was so blasé that even the butts looked bored. And there were a lot of them.
Taylor Swift, the pop artist, had an official coming-out party as she performed her new single "Shake It Off," shedding any threads to country music with a stunning, OCD performance that recalls decades of pop video. There was a smidgen of Busby Berkeley musical and a dance troupe redolent of the tuxedo'd suitors from Madonna's "Material Girl" (itself a tribute to the 1953 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). There was the shimmy and shake of Nancy Sinatra's proto-MTV clip "These Boots Were Made For Walking" (or maybe that was Ike & Tina's "Proud Mary?) and there was sort of a gender-flip on Robert Palmer's iconic "Addicted to Love." There was a touch of Breakin' and a bit of hard-rock pyrotechnics. This "try anything" style exactly was exactly what music video meant in 1989, the year Taylor is paying tribute to via her new album title.
For approximately 15 seconds, the VMAs broke form for an uncomfortable tribute to Robin Williams. A snippet of Coldplay's "A Sky Full of Stars" played. A random mix of publicity photos and candid-ish shots crossed the screen. All in all, it was 15 seconds that could have just as easily shown producers saying, "We really should do something to honor one of the most influential actors and comedians of the last 40 years, but what?"
As totally disjunctive, nonsensical hodgepodges of cobbled together ideas go, this was a great one to watch! Ariana Grande mixed Barbarella with The Fifth Element and TLC's "No Scrubs." Nicki Minaj combined a "sexy snake" Halloween costume with Cirque du Soliel-style acrobatics and Bobby Brown-style "Humpin' Around." Jessie J wore a skirt cut up almost up to her gall bladder. Together, the trio had no chemistry and nothing made sense — but everyone made a mark nonetheless.
Nicki Minaj may have had no problem with stripping nearly naked to sing "Anaconda," but she has her limits. Apparently unable to quick-change from her silver bikini into a black décolleté dress, she awkwardly joined Jessie J and Ariana Grande for "Bang Bang," clasping her garment shut. At different points she struggled to keep the plunging neckline of the dress closed, singing with her hands over her chest and belly. When the song was done — and she had a break from scuffling, not dancing — she smiled.
Whether you find her nudity and sledgehammer-licking appealing or appalling, whether you think director Terry Richardson is a provocateur or a genius, there's no question that this video is perfectly contemporary, gorgeous and full of indelible images. Like one of Richardson's stark photos come to life, the duo took the fine line between fashion photography and arty pornography and turned it into a worldwide pop sensation.
On the VMAs red carpet, Miley Cyrus said she hoped to leave a "different kind of impression" at the VMAs this year, as opposed to her twerking show-stopper last year — but nobody could have expected what she had up her (nonexistent) sleeves. When Jimmy Fallon announced that she had won Video of the Year, she pulled a Marlon Brando and sent another person up in her stead. This person was a homeless youth who introduced himself as Jesse and shared statistics about runaway and homeless young people in the U.S. and, specifically, Los Angeles, where Cyrus has teamed with an organization to called My Friend's Place to raise funds for youth outreach. "A dream you dream alone is only a dream," Jesse said at the end of his speech. "But a dream we dream together is reality."
Early on in the night, Gwen Stefani and Snoop Dogg hit the stage in a rare acknowledgement by MTV that the 1990s were a thing that happened. The only problem came when Snoop inexplicably dubbed the No Doubt singer the "true queen of L.A. punk rock." Imagine how X's Exene Cervenka, Black Flag's Kira Roessler or every member of the Go-Go's feel about that one. To be fair, even Gwen seemed to roll her eyes at the line.
For years now, Jay Pharoah has seemed like an underutilized Saturday Night Live cast member — his impressions are always sharp and his delivery is confident. His comedy bits during last night's VMAs suggested that maybe there's a reason he's never quite broken out. When he stuck to impersonations — his Jay Z impression was uncanny, his Kanye only slightly less so — he did well. When he ventured to standard joke-telling, he lost his sparkle. A limp gag about Ariana Grande looking like jailbait was pretty much representative. He's an amazing performer, but, last night anyway, he couldn't transcend bad material.
Engaging in exactly zero of the disposable banter that peppers these ceremonies, Common focused on the calls for justice and change coming in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. He mentioned hip-hop's politically minded pioneers (how great is it to hear Melle Mel's name on TV in 2014?) and held a moment of silence "for Mike Brown and for peace in this country and in the world." Meanwhile, the "Best Video With a Social Message" award wasn't presented during the ceremony (though Beyoncé took it home for her excellent, emotionally heavy "Pretty Hurts.")
Rock music's biggest moment at this year's VMAs was a Maroon 5 performance sponsored by a car called the Kia Soul. Then again, soul music didn't have it any better (one of the cars was housing a DJ spinning EDM beats through the sun-roof). Rock's lowest point actually came when presenter Trey Songz referred to the Black Keys as the Black Eyes (it should be noted, a post-hardcore band in the early Aughts who released records on Dischord). The goof was bad, but not as bad as when MTV awarded the duo a "Tighten Up" Moonman inscribed to the Black Eyed Peas.
The VMAs are a telecast in relentless search of a retweet. Naturally, that leads to spectacular, overstuffed performances, a reality that made Sam Smith's subdued and simmering rendition of "Stay With Me" a standout for all the right reasons. Stationed at a microphone, accompanied by a keyboardist, Smith simply just sang — and slayed. Dressed demurely in a black suit, he sent that gorgeously emotive falsetto of his swooping and fluttering over the crowd. The biggest special effects of the performance were the tears in Smith's eyes as the song came to a close, and the broad smile that followed.
Look, we realize you probably ended up in the parking lot of the Forum because you answered a casting director's Craigslist ad. And, yes, it's probable you showed up excited to see Nicki or Beyoncé up close and personal, only to be told that you'd be watching guys with guitars instead. But, c'mon folks, did you have to hold your phones up the entire time? Unless someone from MTV's marketing department told you to keep 'em up there (which, after watching the show, seems like a distinct possibility), let us be the first to inform you that filming every single second of a performance isn't the best way to watch music. Your eyes work too.
"I meant to do that!" Jim Carrey said repeatedly after accidentally slipping off the stage during the Best Pop Video presentation. "We rehearsed that." Paired with his Dumb and Dumber costar Jeff Daniels, Carrey was in the middle of doing a (lame) routine about his scarf. "Let me try it again," he said, before tumbling like 52-year-olds do. He even ducked off screen, as if he fell again, before the nominees were announced. A lousy bit was saved by an impeccable showman and irrepressible goofball.
The most noteworthy part of Iggy Azalea's performance was what was missing: The Australian rapper didn't use her VMAs spot to perform "Fancy," a track up for Video of the Year. The "Fancy" omission was especially surprising considering Charli XCX was also in the house after performing "Boom Clap" on the red carpet. Considering how lackluster the VMAs were on a whole, the crowd-pleasing megahit "Fancy" could have been a much-needed adrenaline shot. Instead, we got the downer single "Black Widow" with Rita Ora. At least the pair's outfits — which were more Black Cat meets Black-Suit Spider-Man than Black Widow — were pretty cool.
Chloe Grace Moretz and Dylan O'Brien introduced 5 Seconds of Summer, but it sounded like they were pumping up the crowd for a Fugees reunion. "Dylan and I are here to reminisce about the 1990s," said Moretz. "They were a time of Hammer pants, Beanie Babies and Doc Martens." They explained that 5 Seconds of Summer were inspired by Green Day and Blink-182, though sadly the word "Ash" written across the group's bass drum wasn't a shout-out to the Nineties Britpop band (it's merely the nickname of drummer Ashton Irwin). Weird intro aside, their performance of "Amnesia" probably earned them a bunch of new fans that weren't even alive in the Nineties.
Although the VMAs weren't entirely riddled with technical errors, there were enough to warrant a few double-takes. Before the show even began, a camera showed a long interior shot of the arena during interviews on the red carpet. During Snoop and Gwen Stefani's presentation of Best Female Video, a voice strangely called over the audio, "Taylor One, Taylor One, Taylor One, Taylor One, —lor One," presumably camera directions (but we can't rule out alien transmissions). Finally, when Lorde accepted the trophy for Best Rock Video, she had no idea what camera was on her. "Is there some place I should be looking?" she asked before turning to her left. "Oh, hi."
It’s no secret that the VMAs are no longer about the videos, ignoring the directors and focusing on the performances, but this year, even the music got shafted. When the nominees were announced, the videos weren’t just truncated into a few distorted, fake fish-eye frames, the actual songs were combined into a single, stuttering trap megamix. A commentary on the interchangeability of this year's nominated songs? A hip effort to appeal to young fans? No, just an annoying way to listen to the music that this show is supposed to be celebrating.
"The ladies in prison would love this next performer," said Laverne Cox, introducing Usher alongside two of her Orange Is the New Black castmates. Opening with a particularly hard rendition of his Mike Will-produced, Migos-influenced new "Believe Me," he immediately lived up to the hype, then segued into a particularly disco rendition of his Pharrell-produced, DJ Cassidy-influenced "She Came to Give It to You." Oh, and when Nicki Minaj appeared to rap her verse on the latter, he dropped to his knees and bounced his shoulder and head off her much discussed butt. This — and not the slick dance moves choreographed to a tasteful R&B jam — must have been what the singer was referring to when he (per a weekend MTV News headline) promised "something he's never done before at the VMAs."