MTV Video Music Awards: How the 2011 Show Missed the Mark (Analysis)

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THR's music editor muses on a show that was heavy on star power, but short on hits, and missed several moment-making opportunities, all under the network's nose.

I’m with Adam Levine on this one. The Maroon 5 singer and Voice coach tweeted on Saturday that the Video Music Awards represent the “one day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music.” Perhaps no time in VMA history was that more evident than 2011’s mess of a broadcast, which missed on just about every front (we’ll give Beyonce a pass), raising the question: does MTV even get music anymore?


It all looked pretty promising on the pre-show arrivals line, where a cavalcade of big time stars posed for photographers, among them: Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Too bad none would perform Sunday night. As for the ones that did take the stage? There were some standout moments, but for the most part, either song choice or delivery left many pop music enthusiasts -- both at home and in the Nokia Theater audience -- somewhat baffled.

Chalk it up to a mountain of miscalculations, which started from the very first note…

Lady Gaga’s drawn out drag act. Introducing the VMA audience to Jo Calderone via a tough talking soliloquy was amusing and somewhat interesting for the first 60 seconds, but coming on the fourth minute, Lady Gaga's alter-ego act was starting to feel more like amateur night at an off-Broadway workshop. Two hours later, as Gaga was still method walking through the crowd, that’s when things got tedious. At show’s end, with Mr. Sha Na Na answering questions on Gaga’s behalf in the press room, well, you get where this is going… Granted, the Brian May solo and Britney Spears introduction later on had the feel of classic VMA moments, but for someone who’s considered so innovative, Gaga’s Jo felt pretty tired. If it goes down in pop culture history as a great statement on gender equality, I’m all for it, but from where I sat, it simply dragged. The performance’s saving grace? The gorgeousness of the song “You and I,” even if the Shania Twain-esque production is irksome. 

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A half-assed tribute to Britney Spears. Her name flashed in all the VMA promos promising a tribute worthy of the Michael Jackson video vanguard award, and in the theater sat dozens of singers capable of covering a Britney Spears song, so what did viewers get? A bunch of kids dancing in double time to 90 seconds of Britney hits. This is how they honor an iconic artist who’s never had a single dud of a video and has probably generated more than a billion dollars in ad revenue over the years? Watching it back, the dizzying pace had me questioning whether I was on speed or the producer who thought it was OK to organize a Britney tribute without any actual artists taking part. 

Amy Winehouse tribute falls short, too. To repeat the previous point, MTV couldn’t gather enough artists for a three-song medley of Amy Winehouse’s hits? That would be, songs she actually wrote (like every track on Back in Black), as opposed to “Valerie,” performed by Bruno Mars, which is actually a cover. To add insult to injury, Tony Bennett was in the house, on the stage, and didn’t sing a single lick? With his duets album out in three weeks? Another head-scratcher. Not to take away from Bruno Mars, because he delivered, as always, an energetic, spot-on, era-defying performance (extra props for the Amy-themed kick-drum), and Russell Brand, who honored the late singer with a deeply personal message, but MTV missed the boat on this act big time -- almost as if they didn’t appreciate Winehouse’s place in music.

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Beyonce’s pregnancy overshadowed all. One would guess that’s not the sort of thing MTV could control or prepare for when it was booking the VMAs months ago, but the fact that Beyonce felt the VMAs was the right place to announce her pregnancy is both peculiar and brilliant and completely hijacked the news of the night. True to form, Beyonce bested herself with a stellar performance of “Love On Top” that proves, yet again, why she’s in a class of her own and completely untouchable.

Where were the hits? With the understanding that record companies and artist managers want to push their artists’ new single rather than the one kicking around for the better part of the year, the show was exceptionally short on hits. Pitbull had one with “Give Me Everything” as did Lil Wayne with "How to Love," but Gaga’s “You and I,” Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis” and Beyonce’s “Love On Top” are still building. Where was Chris Brown’s smash “Look At Me Now?” Cohorts Wayne and Busta Rhymes were both in the crowd. LMFAO were around -- they’ve had the No. 1 song in the country for the last five weeks. Foster the People? And would it have killed Adele to sing “Rolling in the Deep” one more time? The show celebrates songs as much as it does their videos, why not give the people what they want?

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No brainer: Katy Perry and Rebecca Black should have duetted on “Friday” / “T.G.I.F.” Perhaps the biggest oversight of all? Not seeing Rebecca Black’s “Friday” among the nominees for Video of the Year. Think about it: was there another clip more viewed, dissected, mocked or mimicked? And with Katy Perry in the audience, who featured Black in the video for her own “T.G.I.F.” (and has performed the song with her on the very same stage), why not put these two iconic weekend lovers together? Talk about a can’t-miss moment. Sadly, there were too many on Sunday’s show.


The sad seated state of Jessie J.: You couldn’t help but sympathize for up-and-coming singer Jessie J., who was relegated to a throne-like chair all night, after hopping down the carpet in crutches. Since breaking her leg at a show in London back in June, she’s had to pull the sitting act several times, no doubt wanting to fulfill her booking obligations, but perhaps this is one time when her people should have opted out. You want to present a new artist in the best possible light, as she should be seen, not distracted by a bedazzled cast or the fact that she can’t stand up. It made every commercial break -- and especially the one she stood for (her new single, naturally) -- incredibly painful to, er, sit through.

No host fail. While no one craves cheesy jokes at the expense of celebrities, the pacing of the VMAs felt off the mark without a host and the show too short (another 30 minutes would have allowed more time for hits). Case in point: when after two-and-a-half hours, the audience didn’t know the show was over and had to be told to exit. Kudos to Kevin Hart who starred in some hilarious video segments, they should have just let him handle the transitions.  

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Add to the list of things that don’t make sense… Zero cohesion, not in theme, look, or vibe of the show. The carpet was said to be black, but look at photos and it was actually white. The giant structure that outlined the stage, was that spinal cord-inspired or spaceship? And Chris Brown, was that mishmash of songs supposed to be a tribute to MTV? To the VMAs? And while the flying was impressive, the lip-synching? Not so much. Like Cloris Leachman appearing with the girls of Jersey Shore, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to these decisions and in the end, it all just felt like one giant misstep.

Now before you paint me as some sour, jaded, bitter journalist, let me say that I have attended all but one VMA since 1997 (and have loved them all, except those couple in Miami, one of which touched down along with Hurricane Katrina) so I do have some perspective, and I didn’t hate all of the show. Things I had no qualms with: the Beastie Boys gag, Rick Ross and Paul Rudd, the performance by Young the Giant and the Foo Fighters’ acceptance speech during which frontman Dave Grohl gave a shout-out to recently deposed MTV head Judy McGrath. She was an MTV executive who really got to the heart of the music community and championed bands like no other. Her absence was most certainly felt along with all the frothing excitement of yesteryear’s VMAs.