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MTV VMAs 2014’s 20 Best and Worst Moments

Beyoncé’s stunning performance, Taylor Swift’s pop breakout and more highs and lows from MTV’s most outrageous night

Beyoncé and Taylor Swift at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

Getty Images

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.

Nicki Minaj at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Nicki Minaj performs onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/MTV1415/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/MTV1415/GettyImages

WORST: Nicki Minaj’s Wardrobe Malfunction

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.

Miley Cyrus at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: (L-R) Recording artists Katy Perry, Sam Smith, Juicy J and Miley Cyrus attend the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV)

Christopher Polk/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

BEST: Miley’s “Wrecking Ball” Wins Video of the Year

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.

Jesse accepts Video of the Year for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: My Friend's Place representative Jesse (L) accepts Video of the Year (on behalf of Miley Cyrus) for 'Wrecking Ball' from TV personality Jimmy Fallon onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV)

Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

BEST: Miley Cyrus’ Statement of a Speech

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."

Snoop Gwen VMAs

Snoop Dogg and Gwen Stefani at the 2014 MTV VMAs.

Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images

WORST: Snoop Declares Gwen Stefani L.A. Punk Queen

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.

Jay Pharoah

Jay Pharoah at the 2014 MTV VMAs.

Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

WORST: Jay Pharoah’s Material

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.

Common at the 2014 MTV VMAs.

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Rapper/actor Common speaks onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV)

Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

BEST: Common’s Moment of Silence

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.")

Trey Songz announces the Best Rock Video VMA

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Actress Nina Dobrev and singer Trey Songz speak onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV)

Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV)

WORST: Rock Takes a Backseat

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.

sam smith

Sam Smith at the 2014 MTV VMAs.

Jeff Kravitz/MTV1415/FilmMagic

BEST: Sam Smith’s Subdued Song

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.

Maroon 5

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: (L-R) Musicians Matt Flynn, Adam Levine, PJ Morton, and James Valentine of Maroon 5 perform onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV)

Rich Polk/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

WORST: Maroon 5’s Phone-Toting “Fans”

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.

Jim Carrey at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

Kevin Winter/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

BEST: Jim Carrey Tumbles for You

"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.

Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Recording artists Iggy Azalea (L) and Rita Ora perform onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

WORST: Iggy Azalea Fails to Get Fancy

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.

5 Seconds of Summer at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

5 Seconds of Summer at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

BEST: 5 Seconds of Summer Go Gimmick-Free

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. 

MTV VMAs

Taylor Swift performs on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA), August 24, 2014 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

WORST: Technical Snafus

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."

MTV VMAs

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Singer Ariana Grande performs onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)

Mark Davis/Getty Images)

WORST: Unnecessary Nominee Supermixes

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.

Usher and Nicki Minaj at the 2014 MTV VMAs.

INGLEWOOD, CA - AUGUST 24: Nicki Minaj and Usher perform onstage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/MTV1415/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/MTV1415/WireImage

BEST: Usher Heads in a New Direction

"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."

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