MTV’s VMAs: The Best and Worst Moments
SPIN's Steve Kandell on Gaga, Tyler, the divas, Lil Wayne and more.
To their credit, I suppose, MTV doesn’t pretend that Video Music Awards themselves are worth much more than the pewter they’re molded from. The show has always been about the balance of unscripted — or unscripted-seeming — moments popping out of a carefully choreographed marketing extravaganza, little daisies springing out of a morass of mud. And the decision to go without a host this year is at the least a tacit admission that personalities are secondary to the mission at hand, that navigating these moments isn’t really something you need to hire a human being to do. Or, put another way, it’s pretty inexpensive to improve upon Chelsea Handler. In any event, the ratio of mud to daisies was pretty lopsided this year:
MOST GENUINE MOMENT: TYLER, THE CREATOR MAKES MAMA PROUD
Yes, it’s strange that a young, controversial, button-pushing artist, darling/scourge of the hip-hop underground barely a year ago, who has set a modern land-speed record for going from eye-opening to eye-rolling, would care so deeply about winning a Best New Artist VMA, but there he’s been for weeks, worrying away on his otherwise highly scatological Twitter feed. For whatever reason, he’s been dreaming of this moment since he was nine, so good for him. Truly. In an event that’s had whatever soul and charisma that was once in it surgically vacuumed out, it’s weirdly refreshing to see someone give a shit, and to see Tyler’s mom, whom many think has a lot to answer for, freak out so proudly, flanked by a possibly tripping-balls Nathan Wavves. The reason why this is acceptable is the same reason proffered to those who are rightfully outraged over an artist who gleefully traffics in misogyny and violence and violent misogyny: He’s just a kid. He’s got a lot to learn about life, about women, about handling himself publicly, about the music industry, and yeah, seeing someone in this context who hasn’t learned, or been coached to look like he’s learned, any of those things, is what counts as a breath of fresh air. Your options are Tyler spazzing out and Justin Bieber and his snake Johnson blankly thanking God and Jesus; we’re not creating the menu here, we’re just trying to find something to order.
MOST ENLIGHTENING STATE OF THE DIVA RECALIBRATION: ADELE, GAGA, BEYONCE, BRITNEY, AND JESSIE J
It’s easy to say that Adele, standing and singing, accompanied by only a piano and zero schtick is the ultimate commentary about her status in relation to the other female solo artists that she has no business being compared to anyway. But what we really learned is that Jessie J’s bedazzled air-cast may be a metaphor for her stateside career, which began with an inexplicable SNL slot last year and went pretty much nowhere after that. Giving her the house-band gig may have been meant as a showcase, but it’s hard to know what an audience is going to learn seeing a two-second glimpse of someone singing in a white vinyl loveseat behind a big Hunger Games onscreen logo. The fact that Britney didn’t perform, and barely spoke, might say as much about her shaky Vanguard-ness as any lip-synched dance routine might have, while Beyonce won the night, capping her typically spirited “Love On Top” performance by revealing her corseted baby-bump, as- Kanye virtually jumped on presumed father Jay-Z’s shoulders in excitement.
BEST SOURCE OF A MILLION SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK JOKES: CHRIS BROWN’S SADLY NON-MALFUNCTIONING WIRE HARNESS
Kurt Cobain was probably spinning in his grave long before that non-sequitir “Smell Like Teen Spirit” snippet. And though it’s getting less play, Kanye’s reverse-Kanye deferral to Chris Brown was more maddening than any slight to Taylor Swift.
MOST CONFUSING REJOINDER TO DAVE GROHL’S WISHFUL THINKING “ROCK IS STILL ALIVE” ACCEPTANCE-SPEECH SENTIMENT: YOUNG THE GIANT
Or was it Foster the People? Regardless, MTV could only come up with two bands to invite that represented a new generation of rock bands, and they both have identical names and levels of impressionable character. We’re not saying Grohl’s wrong, we’re just saying this wasn’t the venue in which to find credible evidence.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ARTIST WHOSE COTERIE OF MANAGERS HAD TO HAVE BEEN ALL, “PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T DO THIS”: LADY GAGA’S ADAM GOLDBERG IMPRESSION
The over/under on Lady Gaga awards-show costume changes is usually about four; she destroyed the odds by going with a solid zero. Taking the Sha Na Na/Darkness on the Edge of Town-vintage Bruce/Ralph Macchio drag bit from her new “You and I” video too, too far, Gaga stayed in character for an opening monologue, a performance of the song itself, and then the entire show, including a truly bizarre Britney Spears Video Vanguard presentation, which Spears herself used mainly to introduce Beyonce. As with many things Gaga does, this over-commitment went so far beyond logic and entertainment that it actually circled back around to provocative — the shot of Tony Bennett standing next to her, gamely smiling, was worth it all. We’d like to think she’s back at her hotel now, still with her hair slicked back and her jaw jutted out, ordering eggs benedict and a pack of Marlboro reds from room service.
BEST PERFORMANCE IN THE AMY WINEHOUSE TRIBUTE: AMY WINEHOUSE
Speaking of Tony Bennett, the clip of him in the studio with Winehouse in March singing “Body and Soul” was completely heartbreaking. Not because she looked frail or ravaged, but quite the opposite: She was rosy-cheeked and smiling and sparkling in a way no one had seen her in years. The footage put the lie to the notion that she was methodically killing herself, which then made her death, coupled with last week’s revelation that she had no illegal drugs in her system, all the more puzzling and maddening. Not sure why Bruno Mars was the best person in that room to perform a tribute, or why he was the only artist asked to sing, or why the song chosen was a Zutons tune rather than the many great songs Winehouse wrote for, and about, herself, but that’s hardly his fault. Someone else up the food chain decided that fit the definition of “special.”
BEST SLY PROMOTION FOR THE NEW MTV SHOW I JUST WANT MY PANTS BACK: LIL WAYNE’S EXTREME CHEETAH-PRINT DROOPY DRAWERS
We’d say more about the musical performance had 45 percent of it not been bleeped out, including, thankfully, Weezy’s guitar parts. And then it was over. Did there at least used to be a balloon drop?