MTV's 32nd annual Video Music Awards was basically the Miley Cyrus Show, an evening bursting with her chaotic visual style, her cheekily outrageous personality, her unlikely outfits, her new song and even her pet pig. However, there was no shortage of notable moments, from Kanye's 13-minute acceptance speech to Taylor Swift squashing beefs with a hug and a smile. Here's the highs and lows from a night of stars, swears and Skurfs.
For all his accomplishments, Kanye West went ahead and turned the acceptance speech into an art form. Being celebrated as a pioneer of visual art — the first Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award winner to work almost exclusively in the YouTube era — is a validation of everything Kanye has worked for and complained about and drunkenly argued on MTV. His 13-minute acceptance was a mix of public therapy, Louie C.K. routine, political rant and stump speech. The most human hip-hop star stood there, silent and let America see tons of emotions cross his face. He got existential about the concept of award shows ("I don’t understand how they get five people who worked their entire life [together] . . . and have the opportunity to be considered a loser") and announced his run for president. The man being celebrated as a visual vanguard did it all in a T-shirt.
Second only to Kanye West's onstage therapy session, Miley Cyrus being Miley Cyrus for two-and-half hours was the only thing that made us want to keep watching. She changed skimpy and/or bizarre outfits every few minutes, cursed up a storm, freed a nip, joked about weed, teased her achy-breaky family, showed off her pet pig and even brought out her real-life grandma for a cameo. The coup de grâce, though, was her kaleidoscopic, show-stopping performance of "Dooo It!" — which ended with the announcement that you can hear her new album right now if you didn't want the party to end. Flanked by neon-adorned contestants from RuPaul's Drag Race and the Flaming Lips dressed like her deceased pets, it all looked outtakes from a Deee-Lite video meets the Rocky Horror Picasso Show.
The Academy wouldn't ask this much of Billy Crystal. From the get-go, the most exciting aspect of this year's Video Music Awards was the prospect of "What will Miley do?" It's been two years since the Twerk Seen 'Round the World, and one since she brought a homeless man as her date, so expectations were naturally running high — what, was everyone supposed to get super excited about the Twenty One Pilots and Demi Lovato performances? During the night's pre-show, her short appearance in a Barbarella jumper outshined anything Kelly Osbourne had to say to Rebel Wilson, and during the show it was more exciting to see Miley spar with Nicki Minaj than it was actually to watch Nicki Minaj. The quip that captured everything wrong with the show was when Cyrus shut down Minaj during their war of words, saying, "It's no big deal. It's just an award."
The 2015 VMAs were a big night for the 21-year-old pop star. After a few years off from music which saw Justin Bieber having a public meltdown so wild that he got arrested, he returned strong with a successful collaboration with Jack Ü — "Where Are Ü Now" — and his own tropical new single "What Do You Mean?" Bieber's big return to non-roast TV was a testament to how hard the boy can work. His high-energy choreography served as a reminder of his performance skills, and he even gave the audience something extra: After a spoken word interlude played over a dark stage, Biebz floated into the air within a beaming tunnel of colors and light. Once he landed, he broke down in tears. Cyrus attempted to say her next announcement but a doubled-over and sobbing Bieber proved too distracting. It's OK, Justin, we're happy you're back, too.
You can't be the new Michael Jackson without a must-see MTV moment — and the Weeknd just got his. He's been raking in MJ comparisons all year — his amazing falsetto alone takes care of that — but it wasn't until he performed "Can't Feel My Face" that he really sealed the deal. The guy who was a shadowy mixtape creeper a few years ago is gone. This Weeknd absolutely owned that stage, with his charisma on a billion, like a real pop star. His sweet sideways moonwalk moves got Kanye West up out of his seat like he was Taylor Swift. Then he got Taylor out of her seat a few moments later. Shamon!
For all the tabloid/TMZ/Twitter/Tay drama that this song alludes to (and represents as per MTV's current angry girls narrative), "Bad Blood" was still handily the best video nominated for Video of the Year. Though its goofy action-comedy Tarantino vibes don't have the poignant imagery of Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" or the scrappy D.I.Y. inventiveness of Beyoncé's "7/11," it's basically a Hollywood blockbuster that delivered — almost to the tune of half a billion views. It's funny, entertaining, visually striking, full of enough ideas and looks to fill a real film, a budget that most artists won't (or can't) approach, inventive gadgets and doo-dads, inspired editing and an explosion.
Just minutes into the show, Taylor Swift joined Twitter debate opponent Nicki Minaj on her song "The Night Is Still Young" in a matching red, sparkly outfit. At the end they gave each other some rehearsed nasty looks before Taylor sang a bit of "Bad Blood," embracing each other and flashing some seemingly genuine smiles.
Kanye West made sure to point out the ways MTV has profited off his beef with Taylor Swift during his Video Vanguard Award acceptance speech, but the biggest beef-related loser of the night was every woman in the room. The show honed in on the recent feuds between its biggest female stars, opening the show with Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift hugging it out on stage. However, shortly after, a voiceover announced, "Stay tuned to see what other girl-beefs are resolved on our stage." This is all compounded by the questionably organic battle of words between Minaj and Miley Cyrus, and the night's big winner, "Bad Blood," basically being an angry letter to Katy Perry. MTV might be a little obsessed with the idea of women arguing with each other right now.
Nobody can out-Miley Miley. Where Cyrus' twerking in 2013 was campy and goofy, Demi Lovato's hyper-sexual performance of "Cool for the Summer" — in which she popped cherry balloons and murdered a metaphor — came off as crass and too self-aware. Dressed in fishnets and lingerie, the singer opened the performance flanked by backup dancers who looked like marshmallow Peeps and thrusted her crotch. And even though Iggy Azalea's cameo was a mumbly mess, the worst part of the performance came when Lovato climbed into an inflatable raft bound for the audience only to be carried by security guards who wouldn't let the fans near her. It looked like the saddest mosh pit ever.
Most years, the VMAs are so overproduced that even the spontaneous moments feel staged. This was not one of those years. And let it be said that it was Rebel Wilson who lit the powderkeg that blew this show off the rails. When she strode onstage dressed like a cop, ranted about substandard exotic dancers, then tore off her uniform to reveal a T-shirt that read "FUCK THA STRIPPER POLICE," viewers everywhere dove for their DVR remotes. While moments like this are almost always covered by a cut-away to another camera, the shirt stayed on TV for six glorious seconds, an eternity considering VMA executive producer Van Toffler literally bragged to Billboard that, "We have a delay, so we're prepared." We're not sure how she pulled off the stunt, but Wilson will live in VMA profanity history.
"Oh, sorry, my tit's out?" Miley Cyrus asked coyly. It was only a matter of time before the "Free the Nipple" activist suffered a lack-of-wardrobe malfunction sometime during the VMAs. The camera tried to stop it — it cut away a few times — but it came in like a wrecking ball.
And the award definitely does not go to . . . whoever was in charge of envelopes for this year's winner announcements. Britney Spears struggled with opening hers onstage. Big Sean fumbled his and gave the censors a scare. Justin Smollett had to tell everybody to wait while he wrestled with his. We're calling it: This was the least popular envelope adhesive since the one that killed George Costanza's fiancée on Seinfeld.
Any excuse to put Grandmaster Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee in front of a national audience on a prime-time awards show gets our hands in the air. Those guys — from the Furious Five, Cold Crush Brothers and Treacherous Three, respectively — are living hip-hop history; without them, your favorite rappers wouldn't know a mic was made for rocking. So let's give it up for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who brought these three rap pioneers out for an over-the-top, epic performance of "Downtown," their new moped-themed show tune and old-school rap attack. This song is probably going to be a gigantic hit, and if that means Caz finally gets some of the cash that should have been coming to him the last 35 years ago for co-penning "Rapper's Delight," then we're all for it.
For the show's final outdoors performance, Pharrell brought a little Broadway panache to downtown L.A. for a run through "Freedom." With backup dancers dressed like patriotic preppies and revolutionary cheerleaders, an audience full of flag-waving revelers and the singer himself dressed in black and white stripes, the whole thing looked like a wild crisscross of Rent and Jailhouse Rock.
The Miley-centric comedy shorts that peppered the broadcast were winningly silly: a skit involving a pot brownie and Snoop as a talking pig, another about a sleepover at the Cyrus compound featuring Tyga, Mike Will Made It and dad Billy Ray as spot-on straight man ("Goodnight, rappers," he said before turning out the light). But the strongest by far was a sketch starring Andy Samberg and MadTV's Ike Barinholtz as co-captains of Cyrus' personal Instagram Think Tank. The bit, in which the pair custom-engineered a Miley selfie for maximum viral potency, perfectly summed up the way the host elevates the vapidness of Internet culture to a satirical science. As Cyrus followed her consultants' orders to a T — posing on the VMA set with a motley cast including Frankenstein untangling some headphones, Papa Skurf ("from the Bulgarian Smurfs rip-off the Skurfs") wielding a T-shirt gun that fires pants and Rita Ora sitting in a kiddie pool filled with spaghetti, you could see why she was the ideal ringmaster for the circus that is the VMAs. She was both a self-aware commentator on the night's shameless spectacle and its most willing participant.
Don't get us wrong, we bought the Judgment Night soundtrack too. But this misbegotten rap-rock collabo between hip-hop's prettiest motherfucker and a Fueled By Ramen band whose frontman looks like one of Travis Barker's old, sweaty hats fell in a pool of toxic waste and achieved sentience was just no good. Braving a four-song medley, the momentum was killed over and over again. When they started in on Rocky's "L$D," it felt like a very bad trip.
Going alongside Miley's new aesthetic, the entire 2015 Video Music Awards was a pixellated, Technicolor, Windows 95 acid-rave nightmare. Flashbacks to old VMAs were glitched out and skipping, the blurry "data moshing" of images smeared and glooped and a fractured eye behind the podium kept watch.
In between prepping her surprise album, Cyrus launched and heavily promoted her charity, the Happy Hippie Foundation, which assists homeless and at-risk youth. A big part of promoting Happy Hippie has been a focus on young people who don't fit into the gender binary: The Happy Hippie #InstaPride campaign highlighted and honored a small collection of youth across the gender spectrum via gorgeous photos and mini-bios on Instagram. She invited her Happy Hippie squad to the VMA stage and they presented not only Cyrus as the finale performer but the cause itself, bringing one more hugely visible moment for trans rights and gender questioning in a year full of them.
Had things gone a little differently, this year VMAs could have been the greatest night of Fetty Wap's life. The "Trap Queen" singer won the fan-voted Artist to Watch award, and he could have taken a Moon Man from Rita Ora and Emily Ratajkowski before partying the rest of the night away alongside famous fans like Kanye West and Taylor Swift. Instead, he was 3,000 miles away playing a gig with Chris Brown, Omarion and Kid Ink in Long Island. There's a reason that Taylor, Nicki Minaj and many others made sure their tour schedules were clear on VMA night: It is still a big deal to be watched by millions of music fans at once. Fetty Wap should have been there, and the same goes for four-time nominee Kendrick Lamar — though he had a better excuse since he was playing the Reading Festival in England. We also would have liked to have seen Katy Perry, if for no other reason than it would have given Taylor Swift yet one more person to publicly embrace after a feud. Jay Z didn't want to support Kanye getting Video Vanguard Award? Ed Sheeran wasn't out reveling with Team Tay-Tay? With the Internet's on-demand delivery depleting the number of "actually famous" musicians, the absence of the few we have left only seems more glaring.
No one will be talking about it today, what with Kanye's Video Vanguard speech, Miley and Nicki's awkward on-air spat and Bieber's tears, but Taylor Swift deserves credit (like she didn't get enough last night) for letting director Joseph Kahn get on the mic after she won Best Female Video for "Blank Space." Like Kahn — who's been doing this for more than 20 years, and made clips for everyone from Aaliyah and Britney to Shaq and U2 — said, there's a reason why MTV doesn't usually let directors get onstage during their biggest show of the year, and his speech probably had VMA producers slitting their wrists. However, it was great to see the folks who actually make music videos get some shine. From "Blank Space"'s producers and costume designers to the dude who rented him the cameras, Kahn thanked the men and women who, more often than not, do the thankless jobs. And while you can debate the medium's relative worth in 2015, this show is still called the "Video Music Awards" for a reason.