MTV’s Video Music Awards act as a brand-burnishing vestigial tail for the channel, once a year honoring promotional clips for pop songs and the artists responsible for them, while relegating most televised music-related content to meaningful Teen Wolf interludes. It’s easy to see why they persist, though — a live show with a penchant for controversy and boundary pushing, not to mention infinite potential for as-it-happens GIF-making and well-placed commercials for other MTV programs — is a bankable commodity.
This year’s VMAs, lacking the audacious spectacle of the 2007 Vegas takeover or the self-generating storyline of the Kanye-and-Taylor 2009 show (to say nothing of last year’s notorious Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke performance), was OK, as far as these things went. It seemed slight — only eight performances, and not many awards given out on camera. Some of that blandness could be chalked up in part to the roster of performers, many of whom seemed like warm-up acts for the night’s marquee star, Beyoncé.
Ariana Grande, whose guest-laden second album arrived in U.S. stores today, opened the show with the hooting “Break Free,” an independence-minded collaboration with the DJ Zedd; she was followed by Nicki Minaj, who reeled off a spitfire performance of her booty ode “Anaconda.” Those two tracks set the stage for Jessie J, the barky Brit who’s been pounding on American pop’s door for what seems like an eternity now, to yelp “Bang Bang,” on which Grande and Minaj both have supporting roles. (Covering all the bases, that Jessie.)
That song, which is a hyper-aggressive shoulder-shake, was overshadowed by Minaj’s clingy black dress, which wasn’t fastened properly in front; after strutting onstage, she seemed to be shrinking, clutching at her garment’s gaping fabric while rapping her verse as well as she could. Minaj fared better at the top of the next hour, when she strutted out to add a verse to Usher’s “She Came to Give it to You,” a lite-funk jam that borrows heavily from the S.O.S. Band’s 1983 smash “Just Be Good to Me.” Usher’s voice wavered a bit during the performance — he was better at hitting dance moves than high notes — but the song was definitely the highlight of the warm-up acts, all hip-shaking and possibility-laden innuendo.
The other performances were fairly lackluster both in conception and execution, keeping in tune with what has been an uninspiring summer for pop. Taylor Swift, the biggest star of the pre-Beyoncé acts, made a big show of not stage-diving during her run through the tinny, defensive “Shake It Off”; Sam Smith emoted through the overwrought “Stay With Me”; 5 Seconds of Summer inexplicably eschewed their more upbeat pop-punk-as-boy-band tracks in favor of the po-faced “Amnesia”; Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora wore spider-web costumes; Maroon 5 doubled down on their shift toward paper-light party pop with “Maps.” Katy Perry did not perform, although the program’s director was clearly wishing that she had, frequently cutting to reaction shots of her and RiFF RaFF, clad in matching denim a la Britney and Justin in more innocent times. (Notable absentees included 5 Seconds of Summer tourmates One Direction and reaction-GIF-ready Rihanna, both of whom would have probably livened up the peanut-gallery shots.)
In its now-quaint-seeming early years, MTV used its status as youth culture’s most-watched media outlet to get vaguely political — “Choose or Lose” election specials, commercials that chided the viewing audience for plopping down in front of their TVs. Sunday night’s show had two moments that harkened back to those early days. Common, presenting Best Rap Video, led the audience in a moment of silence for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whose death at the hands of a police officer earlier this month led to the still-bubbling tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. And Miley Cyrus, whose video for “Wrecking Ball” took the Video of the Year trophy (even though it seems like the clip came out in another era entirely), used her acceptance speech time to deliver a message about the plight of youth homelessness; she sent a young man named Jesse to the stage, where he discussed his day-to-day existence with an earnestness that made Cyrus weep somewhat theatrically.
And then there was Beyoncé, recipient of both the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award and a huge chunk of show-closing airtime. At the end of last year, the multi-hyphenate 32-year-old put out a self-titled “visual album” that boasted short films accompanying each of its 14 tracks, the sort of audacious gesture that only the most upper-tier pop star could pull off. In keeping with that breadth of ambition, she performed a medley not of her hits, but of songs from that record, one that even incorporated a line from the remix of “***Flawless” she and Minaj released a few weeks ago. Dressed in a bodysuit that looked like a deconstructed stained-glass window, she showed exactly why she inspires such fervor not just from her devoted Beyhive, but from people looking for big-tent pop salvation, hitting every note and leading the audience in sing-alongs while strutting her stuff in front of 8-foot-high letters spelling out “FEMINIST.”
After the performance, Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z popped onstage, their daughter Blue Ivy in tow, to present her with the Video Vanguard Award, given to an artist who has pushed the music-video medium forward. It’s notable that her most recent bout of boundary-pushing was done without much help from the channel that was rushing to give her airtime, or from commercial radio, which has proven to be somewhat allergic to even the more dancefloor-proven Beyoncé tracks like “Drunk in Love.” Then again, given the way the VMAs increasingly exist in their own space on MTV — a world apart from the teen moms and Facebook romances, trotted out every year to stoke nostalgia while giving the channel some late-summer media hits — perhaps giving her the award for innovating in music video while existing in her own realm was a wholly appropriate gesture.