Beyoncé did a lot more than steal the MTV Video Music Awards last night — that wasn’t hard to do, on a night when she had basically no competition. The Sovereign of Surfbort looked like a grown woman competing in a kiddie talent show — she made you feel embarrassed for the other performers, even if this was hardly Ms. Carter at her Sasha-est or Fiercest. When Blue Ivy uttered the words, “Good job, mommy,” she spoke for us all. But Blue Ivy is obviously a well-brought-up child, so she was way too polite to say what the rest of us were thinking: “Mommy, why are Maroon 5 playing? Why is Miley keeping her clothes on? Can you tell Jim Carrey to knock it the fuck off?”
The VMAs really needed Bey last night, because MTV’s annual “Hey, there’s this thing called music and it’s not so bad really, P.S. please watch Teen Wolf” bash was short on sparks until she showed up. Here’s a brief list of things that were badly missed at this year’s VMAs: 1. Players playing. 2. Haters hating. 3. Breakers breaking. And can’t forget: 4. Fakers faking. It was one of those nights the stars play it safe, trotting out there to promote their product and act sincere and make sure nobody’s feelings get hurt. So Queen B was a welcome blast of worship-me glam in a bejeweled unitard, with a 16-minute performance weirdly reminiscent of My Chemical Romance doing “Welcome to the Black Parade” at the 2006 VMAs — proof that emo never dies.
After her instant-classic fiasco-tabulous version of “We Can’t Stop” last year, Miley didn’t step up to do another psychedelic teddy-bear hump party, unfortunately. But she still managed to score the night’s funniest moment of mega-star hubris. When she won for “Wrecking Ball,” she sent up a foxy young stud to read a speech about how much Miley cares about the homeless youth, while Miley sat on the side of the stage in her black-leather tube top and wiped away great big she’s-just-being Miley tears. It was solid gold. Oh Miley — as always, you wreh-eh-eck me.
Taylor Swift, just six months after her soulful “All Too Well” at the Grammy Awards, went to the opposite extreme this time. Instead of sitting at the piano to feel feelings and do those Temple of the Dog hair-tossing windmills, Taylor performed “Shake It Off” as a big-budget “Material Girl”-style dance number, in front of a giant “1989” sign. The brilliance of “Shake It Off” is Taylor pretending to be a Swedish pop star pretending to be an American pop star — a very 1989 thing to do. It’s like she’s imagining the great Roxette/Fine Young Cannibals duet that never happened. Gwen Stefani applauded Tay by tapping a fingernail against her champagne flute, the same way Katy Perry clapped for 5 Seconds of Summer. I hereby recommend all celebs at award shows adopt this passive-aggressive applause technique.
Katy had the night’s fashion coup, showing up with Riff Raff in Britney-and-Justin drag. As she explained to the long-suffering Sway on the red carpet, the double-denim ensemble was a tribute to the Britney/Justin costume from the 2001 VMAs, the night of Brit’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” python dance, back in the TRL glory days. It was the only time all night anyone mentioned my girl Britney — or Justin, for that matter, just a year after the VMAs gave him that lavish Video Vanguard tribute. (Cry me a river, MTV.)
Nicki Minaj wore a green Astroturf bikini to feed the anaconda in all our souls, in a stage-humping medley with Ariana Grande and Jessie J. She re-appeared later in a white suit to do the bump with Usher, who rocked out on bass. Gwen Stefani and Snoop Dogg presented together, giving us all the chance to see Snoop tell Gwen, “You are the queen of L.A. punk rock.” There were no cuddling celeb BFFs in the crowd, not like Taylor snuggling Selena Gomez last year or Katy and Rihanna in 2012. (Neither Rihanna nor Selena were mentioned all night.) But Ariana gave Miley a great big hug on the way to the podium, so we can get our hopes up for next year.
Maroon 5 was there to remind everyone what a fine job Sting used to do. (It also brought back fond memories of Adam Levine’s Twitter rant three years ago, condemning the VMAs as the “one day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music. I’m drawing a line in the sand. Fuck you VMA’s.”) Common gave a garbled speech about Ferguson and led the most inept moment-of-silence at an awards show since James Cameron dedicated his Oscar to the people who died on the Titanic; there’s a reason moment-of-silence bits don’t work on award shows. Especially when there’s a Kardashian in the room.
The unofficial host Jay Pharoah wore out his non-welcome with endless celebrity impressions, while Chelsea Handler made a bizarrely dumb stand-up appearance, with stale jokes that sounded like outtakes from her abysmal 2011 hosting gig. Trey Songz and Nina Dobrev gave out a hilariously out-of-place trophy for Best Rock Video — according to La Nina, “This is an amazing year for rock,” because of Imagine Dragons and Lorde. But what really rocked was Trey dazeem-ing the Black Keys as “the Black Eyes.”
The delightful Australian brat-punk foursome 5 Seconds of Summer got the token rock-band slot, and the winning move would have been for the lads to blast through “She Looks So Perfect” or “Don’t Stop,” two of the year’s kickiest hits. (Or their bang-up live cover of Katy’s “Teenage Dream,” which would have killed.) Alas, instead 5SoS did the slow jam “Amnesia,” the wrong song for the night — this show needed another anonymous pop piety like it needed a Jim Carrey cameo.
But the whole night was just a warm-up for the Beyoncé finale. A few years ago, she hijacked the VMAs and turned it into her own personal baby shower, so everyone wondered what she’d do this year: Announce the custody settlement? But no — she just got up and promoted the hell out of her latest album, with a baby-kissing interlude at the end, plus a very humbled-looking Jay-Z. She aimed straight down the middle — it was restrained compared to her “Drunk In Love” at the 2014 Grammy Awards, or her historic 2013 Super Bowl blowout. Yet she still blasted everyone else out of the room. Is she the first feminist to stand tall on the VMAs in front of gigantic letters spelling out “FEMINIST”? Yes, she is. (A very Nineties thing to do — kinda like Eddie Vedder writing “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm with a Sharpie on MTV Unplugged.)
And oh yeah — she also picked up the Video Vanguard trophy, a lifetime-achievement award given out every year to a legacy MTV star. Bey began her solo career around the time MTV was bailing out of the music business; she’s the first artist to win this award who could honestly claim she doesn’t owe MTV a damn thing, though the tactful way she put it was, “MTV, welcome to my world.” The Video Vanguard interlude is almost always a bore — the VMAs are all about perfect right-now cheese-explosion moments, not long-running careers. I can’t think of any other VMA show where the Video Vanguard moment was the bona fide highlight of the night. But then, Beyoncé is the exception to every pop rule.