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Even by VMA standards, the ads that appeared in advance of the 2015 show were unsettling: psychedelic ooze pouring out of Miley Cyrus‘ mouth and eyes. And sure enough, Sunday night’s show was like a bad trip: entertaining at times, sure, but surreal — Women beefed! Men wept! — confusing and frustrating.
Naturally, all VMAs are judged by the ones that came before. The best either had legendary performances — Madonna in 1984, Nirvana in 1992, Eminem in 2001, Lady Gaga in 2009 — or legendary moments (no need to recount them here). The worst were simply forgettable. (Remember the year that Lou Reed opened the show and Panic at the Disco cleaned up? No?) This year’s was memorable, but seldom for good reasons.
Sure, it delivered outrage and a was-it-staged? water-cooler moment when Nicki Minaj called Cyrus a bitch for her comments in the New York Times earlier this week (judging by the reaction shots posted online, not to mention Cyrus’ comments, it wasn’t staged). But the way that moment came about is even more frustrating than the way it ended: With Rebel Wilson coming onstage in a police uniform, only to lead into a gag with a punchline about strippers dressed as police. (After all the police violence in the past year, and on the heels of Straight Outta Compton, the best MTV could do with the subject matter was a weak “F— tha stripper police” joke?) Earlier in the show, Taylor Swift and Minaj publicly buried the hatchet after their Twitter beef earlier this year by performing together, but then Minaj immediately went to war with Cyrus.
Water-cooler moment No. 2 — Kanye for president — was more predictable: Swift and Kanye West publicly making up for his admittedly Hennessey-inspired interruption of her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs. As expected, Swift managed to make her induction comments as much about her as the inductee — she said that West’s College Dropout was the first album she and her brother purchased on iTunes, making a plug for Apple as well as her own cool factor — and West delivered a rambling but remarkable acceptance speech about his dedication to art that also included an admission that he’d smoked something before the show “to take the edge off,” and concluded by saying he’s running for president in 2020.
It was typical Kanye, but some may have been hoping for something a bit less self-centered, with the 10th anniversary of “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” just a few days away.
For all the outrage she promised, Cyrus delivered a series of awkward outfits and worse jokes, and closed the show with a chaotic performance of an inscrutable new song from her joint album with the Flaming Lips — aka Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, which was made available for free at that moment — and by flashing her boobs.
See more: MTV Airs Miley Cyrus’ Nipple During VMAs
Elsewhere in the show, we had Pharrell Williams being introduced by John Legend in the context of protest singers like Paul Robeson, Nina Simone and Bob Dylan, and then singing his song “Freedom” — whose chorus is difficult not to hear as “Your first name is free, your last name is dumb” — with a giant Adidas logo emblazoned on the seat of his pants while surrounded by gyrating cheerleaders.
We had Britney Spears looking very Barbara Eden (look her up, kids) while presenting the Best Male Video award for Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!”, and pronouncing their names as if she’d never heard of either of them — and Mars seemingly forgetting whose name is first on the song’s credits (Ronson didn’t say a word). We had Jared Leto in sunglasses and slicked-back red-dyed hair, looking like Scott Weiland (look him up, kids). And in this year’s installment of great-rapper-collaborates-with-mediocre-rock-band, we had A$AP Rocky and Twenty One Pilots.
So who won the show? Tori Kelly, who probably gained millions of new fans with a roof-raising performance of “Should’ve Been Us.” The Weeknd, whose strong performance of his undeniable summer single “I Can’t Feel My Face” introduced his face (and hair) to millions of viewers who casually knew the song — his appearance in two Apple Music ads that were as surreal as the VMAs sealed the deal, and he got the all-important cosign of Kanye, as well as Swift and her glamtourage dancing along.
Demi Lovato, whose I’m-grown-up coming-out performance involved a skin-tight glittery one-piece and an Iggy Azalea cameo (who half-heartedly twerked Lovato), succeeded despite the fact that it climaxed with her thrashing in a kiddie pool. Justin Bieber, sporting a new haircut earlier in the show but appearing onstage in a black cap, sung two songs and finished by visibly weeping. And the show open was vintage VMAs, with Swift and Minaj performing a medley of “Trini Dem Girls,” “The Night Is Still Young” and “Bad Blood,” leading into a production masterpiece of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis‘ new single “Downtown,” done as a long street-scene tracking shot with nods to West Side Story, Kiesza‘s “Hideaway,” and even old-school hip-hop, with guest appearances from rap OGs Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee.
Yet the gravity of the year being celebrated was mentioned only obliquely. The most overt reference flashed by during a jokey skit where Cyrus ate some drug-treated brownies with Snoop Dogg, only to see him turn into a talking pig. “I’ve turned into the thing I hate most,” Snoop-Hogg says. “A pig.”
To paraphrase Miley, as she attempted to defend herself in the wake of Minaj’s dis: It’s just an awards show. And sure, it’s just entertainment, and MTV is under no obligation to make more than that. But the VMAs are also one of the world’s biggest stages, and whether it was Russell Brand assailing the Bush administration in 2008 or Cyrus shining a light on teen homelessness last year, it can be a platform. In a year like 2015, the fact that almost no one, including MTV, used it for more than self-aggrandizement, bad jokes and banalities is a sad sign of the times.
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