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Death Wears a Leopard Fedora: SPIN Goes to the VMAs

Katy Perry meets her makers / Photo by Getty Images

The first thing you hear is the screams. They shatter the air for blocks and never pause for breath. Imagine an infinite helium wail. A brutal hymn of unsexed adolescent euphoria, so high-pitched it could deafen your dog. They’re audible a half mile from the Staples Center, the Lakers arena that doubles as the death star for the 2012 Video Music Awards. You can’t see the object of their affection, but if you close your eyes, you can almost feel the concrete quivering to the unflappable rhythms of an ersatz Calvin Harris rave.

Open them and observe the neon. Recoil at the torrent of teenaged girls stuffed into outfits every color of the day-glo. There are streams of Snookis. “Trill” rivulets of amateur Amber Roses rocking skirts so short they could pass for scarves. Animal prints and saline implants. Half of them wear sunglasses in shades that Crayola hasn’t even considered. The rest ward off the searing heat in traditional Hollywood asshole black. Their dates look like Diplo, or at least his low-budget ICM equivalent. Stubble-faced bros in sport coats still sutured to their Blackberries. Fedoras galore. Men in formal wear riding in on Segways. They’re here for the spectacle. They demand the subtlety of a gangbang.

MTV has yet to air an actual orgy, but we are not far from Caligulan depravity. The cable channel helped incubate our adoration of maximalism and we must feast upon whatever’s next. Sooner or later, a program will have to top Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant. And with both Pauly D and the plasticine mob of pre-pubescent girls in the flesh, the future could be upon us. Then I look up and notice the men across the street holding a sign that reads: “REPENT! GOD WILL DESTROY LOS ANGELES.” Hopefully, it won’t occur before sweeps week.

If God did destroy Los Angeles, he would probably start with LA Live, the taxpayer-subsidized garrison of garish chains that the city constructed to give the false impression that people want to hang around Staples Center after basketball games. I pass by a Trader Vic’s and wonder what Warren Zevon would do if he were in this situation. He’d probably tell me to become the wolf and examine my hair to make sure it’s perfect. Consider it done.

Scalpers bumrush me every ten feet, yapping: “Do you got any extra tickets?” I’m almost tempted to sell one for a low three-figure sum and squander the money on a pitcher of piña coladas. But I decline. I speak with a scalper for a few minutes and he tells me how things have changed. A few years ago, you could get in and watch the zoo from up close. But now, security is on edge. After all, if Al-Qaeda strategists had actually wanted to make a socio-cultural point instead of just waging senseless Jihad, the VMAs would’ve been a prime target. In one fell swoop, they could decimate a generation of cultural icons and generate sympathy by saying that the innocent who died were collateral damage in the quest to get Chris Brown.

Thankfully, there is no carnage. The VMAs are about peace, love, and peacocking (and advertising). Or maybe it’s more than that. The scalper turns to me and says:

“I finally figured out what makes the VMAs.”

“What?” I reply.


Then he asks if I have any weed.

The red carpet at the VMAs is double-decked and enclosed by a banana-colored tarp. If you have been to one red carpet, you have been to them all. They are a tedious slog of the most banal questions ever conceived. It is journalism as lunch line, sound bites as exciting as cold Grape Nuts, and reporters leapfrogging one another to faux-french French Montana. But French Montana is just happy to be here. He is a fanuting a zebra-pattern shirt ostensibly designed by M. C. Escher. 2 Chainz is similarly ecstatic and dressed like he’s aping Marlon Brando circa Wild One by way of Michael Jackson in Moonwalker. He’s also the size of an NBA swingman and therefore looks absolutely absurd. And he hasn’t even started dancing yet.

There stand Machine Gun Kelly and Mac Miller. At one point, they are briefly shoulder-to-shoulder, but ignore each other, continuing the time-honored tradition of white rappers hating other white rappers. Machine Gun Kelly claims he’s crestfallen to be here (not his words) and stashes a joint behind his right ear. Mac Miller is a 20-year-old Jewish guy from Pittsburgh with a lazy adenoidal voice and a neck tattoo. Somehow, he has racked up 2.7 million Twitter followers and a No. 1 album sans major-label support. If he isn’t happy to be here, he should be. He is somehow one of the chosen people. We apologize.

No one needs to apologize for Pauly D, the house house DJ at the Palms and Jersey Shore goomba, who slinks in at the far west end of the red carpet. His skin is a healthy shade of Spalding basketball. His hair is frozen and rounded like a tureen of Italian wedding soup. That may be his next sponsored line, but I am not sure. He doesn’t talk to me and I don’t blame him.

I am now standing next to Yahoo! Fashion, where the reporter is frantically trying to hail Ne-Yo. She succeeds and tells him that she is working for a website about fashion and wanted to get the opinion of a man who “does it every day.” He is wearing a fedora, which I suppose now counts as doing it every day. He mumbles a few platitudes about looking good and the follow-up question concerns whether or not he has his own brand of underwear. His lips look suspiciously glossy and I only hear Pimp C’s voice in my head reminding me that Ne-Yo looks like “he’s just been eating a pork chop sandwich with no hands.”

Across the street from the red carpet, hundreds of fans mass around the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar statute. They’re barricaded and screaming and singing “California Gurls,” and clutching “I Heart Miley” signs. I’m pretty sure that I see Octo-Mom wobble past, but it may be Angelina Jolie or just a video vixen. This place is starting to make me dizzy. It’s time for Demi Lovato to begin lip-syncing her pre-Awards performance. The screams escalate. And to amplify the intensity, a half-dozen flaming jet streams burst into the sky and it becomes uncomfortably hot.

“We fell in love in a hopeless place”
“We fell in love in a hopeless place”
“We fell in love in a hopeless place”

Calvin Harris is tonight’s DJ and he’s playing his own music, interspersed with house “jams” that sound like the future if we had no future to speak of. The good news is that there is no place more hopeless than the MTV Video Music Awards. So if Rihanna and Calvin Harris can be believed, love is coming to town. Uh-oh. But love can’t occur at the VMAs. That emotion is as out of place as an Osbourne in 2012. We’re staring directly into the late-neon-capitalist sun, this year’s flavors in your ear, a glimpse at Roman decline in real time. The problem is that you’d think that excess would be more exciting.

There are no surprises or controversies. No Kanye common-sense malfunctions. No break-out performances like the White Stripes in 2002. No Odd Future pranks. And, obviously, nothing even remotely resembling the zeitgeist-ringing putsch of Eminem rapping “The Real Slim Shady” in 2000. With the exception of Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You,” every lip-synched song sounds depressingly similar.

Nor is the style more original. The crew from Young Money looks like they were dressed by the stylist for Las Vegas’ “Absinthe the Show.” Pink channels Brigitte Nielsen in Rocky IV. Chris Brown looks like the lost member of Dru Hill. Rihanna’s stage set is Batman Visits the Pyramids, conceived by Tim Burton. As the song ends, white balloons descend from the ceiling and, inevitably, Wayne Coyne watches it and deliberates how to get Rihanna naked in the next Flaming Lips video.

I’m sitting next to a surfer douche who looks like he never got a second audition at Point Break: The Musical. He abandons his date for 20 minutes to take iPhone pictures of Pink in what appears to be a sex swing. He is also the only person in the room who appears to think Kevin Hart is funny. By the first Frank Ocean-Is-Gay joke, Hart has lost the crowd, most of whom presumably think he’s Chris Tucker. To my right is a girl with Disney Princess blonde hair, a gold lamé mini-skirt, and a spiked pseudo-punk jacket. This one might actually think that Hart is Chris Rock.

The night’s big winner is One Direction, a modern boy-band hybrid of Hanson and Westlife. They have been fully Simon Cowelled, made anodyne to the point of total anonymity and interchangeability. You can conceive as many versions of One Direction as Menudo. But it’s unlikely that they will ever produce a Gerardo. Drake became the first rapper to win an award for his Bar Mitzvah video. Nicki Minaj won an award for her Katy Perry song. And Katy Perry didn’t win anything, but she made a point of reminding the world that she has fantastic breasts.

Outside of the writhing teens and 20-somethings in the pit, the crowd rises to its feet once — during Green Day’s performance. As they rawk, the girl behind me tells her boyfriend that “y’know, American Idiot was a revolutionary album.” She is wearing fur in 90-degree heat. Another person asks why the show has so many breaks. His date informs him of the importance of commercials.

It’s tempting to say that no place is more surreal than the VMAs, but that’s not quite true. There is something grotesquely real about the proceedings. This is essentially a reader’s poll that you never wanted to see the results of. It’s one thing to gather that Chris Brown is insanely popular in the abstract, but at the VMAs you feel the millions of minions ready to smite Chris’ enemies.

You cannot fight it. This is MTV, their sedative powers are scientifically tested. If you try to fight the wave, you will be quickly repelled. It is too loud and there are too many voices to block out thoughts of rebellion. There are no allies here. This is the belly of the beast and the stomach has been stapled. You have two options: abandon the Staples Center or acquiesce to the assault of loud techno and leopard fedoras.

So I let myself be hypnotized. If you tune out and let your eyes glaze, you can forget that Wiz Khalifa is right in front of you, dressed like a giant praying mantis. All you have to do is focus on the hands clapping with drum-machine consistency. Up front, everyone’s arms wave in smooth harmony. I look up in the sky and the confetti starts falling. Taylor Swift is playing a song that sounds like the Rihanna song that started the show. Or the song that Calvin Harris played at the eighth intermission. I’m getting dizzy again. All around me, everyone is dancing. They’re all on-beat — as if they have no other choice.