MTV kinda makes too big a deal out of their Video Music Awards. As a cultural touchstone, the annual kids fest has lost some urgency over the years, yet the network continues to pretend--willfully deny, even--that the show hasn't become a bloated, grimly corporate-backed distortion of what it once was. The proceedings have become sadly over-hyped and overly-festooned, they're a feverish dream of what a planning committee thinks, nay knows, a teenager wants in an evening of mind-blowing. That said, the show can still be pretty darned entertaining. And on that front, last night's 25th-anniversary go-around did not disappoint. All of the studied hip-pomp was intact, musicians behaved like utter jackasses, and awkward jokes fell flat. Here are our picks for the five most interesting moments.
5) Russell Brand Tanks, Yet Again
It's not that we're not fans of "controversial" or "bold" humor, it's just that daring humor also needs to be, y'know, funny. And Brand just really isn't very funny when he hosts these damn things. We were mildly shocked to hear that he was headlining the VMAs again, after his epic crash-and-burn debut with the show last year. We guess MTV figured that it was better to have a nasty court-jester at the ball than none at all. They were wrong. Brand can be funny in other situations--talk show appearances, Forgetting Sarah Marshall--but this is just not his format, we're pretty sure at this point. He wasn't quite as big a mess as he was last time, but jokes about roofie'ing Katy Perry and hanging his hat on Lady GaGa's engorged, um, extra part didn't scintillate as intended. They just grossed out and fell flat. Here's hoping MTV doesn't bank on a third time being the charm next year.
4) Jay-Z and Alicia Keys Love New York
Sometimes living here really sucks--expensive rents, expensive everything else, grime, crowds, the R train--but sometimes New York City can also be pretty fantastic. We were reminded of this, silly as that may sound, when native son and daughter Jay-Z and Keys performed a simple and unadorned "Empire State of Mind" last night. We don't often find live hip-hop performances as engaging as the recorded tracks--there's just no reproducing all the bells and whistles when we're doin' it live--but this was an exception. It was a spirited and ever-so-slightly moving paean to a great, gritty city. A lot of the credit goes to Keys' triumphant howl and forceful piano-playing. Thanks to her and Jay for making us feel not so bad about being broke last night.
3) Pink Can Fly! Lady GaGa Can... Crutch-Dance While Bleeding?
Much like the rest of the show, the VMA performances are often too built-up and self-important to actually resonate. And while the same could probably be said of these two acts, there were still some fascinatingly only-at-the-VMAs moments to be had. Pink (was she really singing? probably not....?) showed off both her trapeze skills and ridiculous bod while dangling high above the audience at Radio City during "Sober", while GaGa did a strange story-dance about paparazzi and fame and bleeding and crutches while singing, well, "Paparazzi." GaGa probably has a bit too much of a lead foot when it comes to the gonzo spectacle, but it's still kinda kooky and fun that she exists, at least for now. And Pink just wanted to do trapeze and stuff, so good for her. Beyonce had the most technically stunning stage presence of the evening--really singing and really dancing along to "Single Ladies'--but both these two peculiar gals tried new things and mostly succeeded.
2) Rhythm Nation 2009
Someone who tried an old thing and mostly succeeded was Janet Jackson, who busted out on stage at the end of the opening tribute to her late brother Michael to dance and sing along to "Scream", the siblings' 1996 duet. Janet's been up and down with the weight recently, more down than up with the career a bit, but last night she came strutting out and none of that really mattered. Did she dance as well as she did 13 years ago? No. (And who does, really?) But she was focused and committed and pretty nearly pulled the whole thing off perfectly. So good for her. She created a riveting, slightly sad moment. And nods should also go to the other insanely good dancers who made up the Jackson tribute. Lil' Kenny Wormald from my home state (and from the Center Stage sequel) was front and center for "Thriller," once again impressing with his versatility of style and general joie de vivre. And to the guy who screwed up at the end of the "Smooth Criminal" segment, don't beat yourself up about it. We'd have bent our knees too. Most normal humans can't do what Michael Jackson did. This just means you're normal. That's all.
1) Oh Dear, Kanye Thinks These Awards Actually Mean Something
Obviously this was the biggest Thing of the evening. Taylor Swift, a little blond country-singing nugget of a market-tested and vacuum-sealed commodity, won Best Female Video right off the bat last night. Yay for the wee childlike empress, too bad for Beyonce, whose "Single Ladies", also nominated in the category, was f'ing fantastic and almost decidedly better than Swift's girls luv boys ditty. Also too bad for Kanye West, who felt the need to storm the stage, take the mic from Swift's hands, and declare that Beyonce was the true winner. Swift looked appropriately hurt and mortified, Beyonce looked woefully embarrassed, and apparently later backstage an angry Pink had to be pulled away from him by security. After winning for Video of the Year (a bigger award, Kanye! You shoulda waited!), Beyonce let Swift come out on stage and actually do a real acceptance speech, Kanye apologized, and Pink has returned to her ferocious gang of high-flying trapeze thugs. And yes it was a nasty, stupid thing to do--because these awards don't actually mean enough to ruin a teenage girl's little moment in the falsely-created sun--but it was also kind of fantastic. Because the VMAs need that water-cooler moment in order to keep going year after year. Maybe Kanye knows that! Maybe he's part of the whole machine. Or maybe he's just an asshole. Hm. Yeah. Maybe that's it. Ah well. At least now a bunch of people who didn't know it before probably know who Taylor Swift is. So, silver lining, girlie! Plus you got to hug Beyonce! Kanye will be expecting a Thank You bouquet.
UPDATE: Here's a video of Kanye's incident:
So, what'd you think? What were your favorite moments?