Glamour, humility and likability gave the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards a unique flavor distinct from recent years in which the profane and the confused ruled alongside mediocrity. Lewdness, a hallmark of so many VMA telecasts, took a backseat on this night — even Nicki Minaj‘s stripper moves within the night’s opening sequence seemed tame.
Sexuality was hardly a subtext in the performances until Beyonce closed the show with a 15-minute medley that had its moments of sultry slithering mixed in with explosive ensemble dances. Amid an army of young performers, Beyonce was the adult in the room, the survivor whose showmanship was allowed to flow as peerlessly as last year’s presentation by Justin Timberlake.
Within the medley there was the message of Bey’s version of feminism that was beamed on a backdrop, but seemingly the big message is that her family is intact: Husband Jay Z and her 2-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, joined her onstage. Oddly, in accepting the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, she said she had nothing to say. (Only two performers had messages to deliver: Common addressed the racial situation in Ferguson, Mo.; Miley Cyrus had a proxy accept her award and speak about the plight of runaways.)
Judging from a seat inside the Forum, where the 31st edition of the VMAs were held Sunday, the awards show played like top 40 radio — a lot of similar-sounding pop taking melodic cues from the music of the 1980s; rap intertwined with female singers, some of them powerhouses, some of them more subtle and sultry. Guitar-based music popped up with 5 Seconds of Summer and Maroon 5, though it hewed toward a lighter pop side rather than anything approximating hearty rock ‘n’ roll. Well, should one expect anything different on a night when Lorde wins the night’s rock award?
The opener, featuring the “Bang Bang” trio of Ariana Grande, Minaj and Jessie J, was presented as a three-parter with distinct sets and lighting. They divided to conquer: Grande with “Break Free,” Minaj with “Anaconda” sans snake and “Bang Bang” to close. Taylor Swift performed “Shake It Off” above and around the number “1989,” delivering a New Year’s Eve-style performance that owed more to the ’20s than the post-Reagan era. It was flashy and fun, a shift not just away from country, but also the diatribe that Swift has made her signature.
Usher, with four horns and a rhythm section, echoed classic Earth Wind & Fire on “She Came to Give It to You”; nearly every performance that was on the slow side of mid-tempo — songs from Sam Smith, 5 Seconds of Summer and Maroon 5 — felt lethargic by comparison.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.