Like all awards shows that fall from grace, there was a point in the past where the MTV Video Music Awards actually meant something, more or less. In fact, if you survey the winners and the nominees for Video of the Year through the end of the 90s, they provide a shockingly-complete overview of the art form’s greatest accomplishments (even if the winners don’t always hit the perfect mark — how on earth did a Spike Jonze video never take home the main Moonman?).
But you can see the transition from “rewarding great videos” to “rewarding popular videos” start to sneak in towards the end of the 90s. Just like its Canadian counterpart, MTV reacted to the demassification of the Internet age by becoming more mass, ignoring alternative sounds and championing an increasingly-narrowing mainstream to try and stay relevant. Now, the awards simply celebrate the biggest, only rarely coming in contact with the best (“Hey Ya,” “Single Ladies” and “Umbrella” are the only things close to resembling deserving winners this past decade).
So why cover the VMAs? Two reasons: the first is that with the music video seeing a bit of an Internet-driven comeback, it seems an appropriate moment to see if (and how) MTV recognizes this — it’s why you’ll likely see Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” taking home the top Moonman. Second reason? In remaking the show separate from the awards, they’ve managed to create a yearly spectacle of pop that always manages to be conversation-worthy, sometimes artificially—hey it’s artist X performing with artist Y!—and sometimes spontaneously (paging Mr. Kanye West).
Plus: liveblogging is fun. Pre-show festivities start after the fold.
8 – Ugh, are we STARTING with the Jersey Shore cast? Nothing musical at all? Thanks for validating my thesis, MTV. Gaga arrives looks shockingly classy and presentable. She knows it’s going to be a big night, I guess.
8:02 – I find it funny that people call Drake “Drizzy Drake.” Has it really been so long since Snoop dropped “Doggie” from his name? They’re already promoting Nicki Minaj pretty hard.
8:07 – MTV has a “Twitter jockey.” As an Internet geek AND a music geek: UGH.
8:08 – #IfBieberMetGaga this Twitter hashtag would still be stupid
8:09 – Katy Perry is charmingly honest when she admits she cares more about the parties than the awards. And then she has to watch as we throw to ANOTHER Jersey Shore clip. My thesis remains intact.
8:11 – God, the VJs aren’t even TRYING to muster enthusiasm for the Jersey Shore pimpage.
8:16 – A fan gets to interview Sean Kingston and ask him a question! Any question! And….it’s about working with Nicki Minaj.
8:17 – Christ, now it’s Snooki. They should have just branded this the Nicki Minaj/Jersey Shore pre-show.
8:19 – Ah yes, the pre-show awards. Best Dance Video and it goes to…Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” As it should, really. And without even taking a breath, it’s Best Collaboration, which goes to…Lady Gaga ft. Beyonce for “Telephone.” This will not be the last time you hear about those videos this evening.
8:25 – 30 Seconds to Mars. If you had told me ten years ago that Jared Leto would have more credibility as a musician than an actor, I would have laughed at you. And yet, here we are. The sad part is that he really doesn’t have that much credibility as a musician.
8:26 – Justin Bieber and Usher hype the show. Bieb’s voice has dropped like an anvil. He’s going to be Barry White by Christmas at this rate.
8:36 – Nicki Minaj finally performs after 30 minutes of hype. I’m a fan of her verses so far, but something about the mix on this performance is off, which makes it feel a bit flat. She riffs quickly over a sample of Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love Yous” before moving onto her single “Check It Out” with will.i.am. It samples the Buggles and gets much stronger when she starts spitting crazy towards the end. I’m not sure if the song is good enough to overcome the familiarity of the sample, but it could be a grower!
8:40 – Wait a minute…was will.i.am performing in blackface? Huh?
8:41 – “It’s about to get really real out here.” Normally I would scoff at just a statement, but I just watched the Moonman walk down the red carpet. So things are VERY REAL.
8:44 – “Why bother getting dressed after Lady Gaga?” asks a VJ. It’s like reverse original sin.
8:50 – B.O.B. says virtually nothing before we throw to an exclusive clip from a short film Kanye is apparently launching soon? It looks BATSHIT CRAZY, and is apparently for his next single “Runaway,” that he’ll be performing tonight.
8:52 – Ke$ha = Lady Gaga on a DIY budget, if she spent most of that budget on cheap booze.
8:54 – Deadma5 shouts out the Murder Capital of Canada! Holla, Winnipeg!
8:57 – The show strategically edits so that Lady Gaga interview closes the preshow. She’s surrounded by soldiers who left or were discharged from the military due to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Good timing, considering the recent U.S. court decision.
9:00 – Here we go! Eminem to open the show, Kanye to close.
9:02 – Eminem starts with a piano-driven version of “Not Afraid” in what looks like a small club that quickly opens up to unveil the VMA stage setup which looks AWESOME. I’m not kidding; I’m not usually impressed by an award show set, but this is pretty awesome.
9:03 – On the record “Not Afraid” sounds kind of flat, less like angsty-Eminem and more like emo-Eminem, but throw in a bunch of tribal drums and it actually sounds kind of kickass. Likewise, “Love the Way You Lie”—which he transitions into when Rihanna shows up—is pretty much all chorus, but what a chorus.
9:07 – Chelsea Handler—our host—has a whole video where she gets hit on by rappers and umm…a reanimated corpse that looks like Lindsay Lohan that I’m going to be have nightmares about for weeks.
9:10 – Handler then emerges in a Gaga spoof outlet that is basically a house on her head that made me chuckle. She’s now making “jokes,” not one of which has elicited the same response.
9:12 – Okay, I giggled at bit when she lambasts the crowd for cheering Jersey Shore. “They’re the reason your videos aren’t being played!”
9:17 – Hey it’s Ellen! She’s presenting best female video, the category which Kanye famously had an opinion about last year. Lady Gaga wins, which I’m pretty sure that Kanye would approve of. She’s…crying? Girl, it’s just a VMA, calm down!
9:18 – Deadma5 rocks a little “Cooler Than Me.” Only, well, that song doesn’t rock much at all.
9:26 – I’ve never really been into Jackass, but I get the appeal. I also enjoy giant high fives. They’re presenting Best Rock Video, none of the nominees for which really impress. But before we get there we get some almost nudity? Awful? Also awful: 30 Seconds to Mars. Just saying.
9:29 – BIEBER!!! After, um, some bad jokes about Kim Kardashian and restraining orders. Bieber gets chased onto stage by a ton of screaming girls in an elaborately-staged bit. Speaking of elaborately-staged, holy lip-sync and/or overly loud backing track, Batman! Has Bieber’s voice cracked so much that they’ve resorted to just faking the whole operation?
9:33 – At least his drum solo looked authentic.
9:38 – Funny bit on the throwback by the Much VJs where Sarah Taylor points out how good Bieber was at singing while being thrown around, but doesn’t have the guts to come right out and accuse him of lipsyncing. We are truly living in the era of Bieber Fascism.
9:39 – What is it with Usher and lasers?
9:43 – Wait…are those GASPS in between Usher’s singing? Amateur. You didn’t hear Bieber losing his breath when HE danced and sang.
9:44 – Best Male Video goes to Eminem, who apparently didn’t stick around for the awards themselves; he flew back to NYC to prepare for his shows at Madison Square Garden with Jay-Z. Katy Perry and Nicky Minaj accept it on his behalf with a very bad sex joke about its stiffness.
9:54 – Florence and the Machine get the one “token credible artist” slot for the night. I’ll be surprised if her Kate Bush-esque motif is able to break through in the States; there’s something just offbeat enough about it that leaves me sceptical of its cross-Atlantic appeal.
10:04 – That may have been the single most awful/poorly delivered punchline about oral sex in the history of music television.
10:05 – Best pop video also goes to Lady Gaga, who has now changed into some gargantuan black ensemble. Clearly, she’s going to sweep this entire thing tonight. She unleashes a Steve Tyler-esque scream.
10:11 – Taylor Swift performs a brand new song, opening with a video clip of last year’s Kanye’s incident on an old TV set before launching into her hyper-emotional ballad that apparently’s influenced by that whole debacle? There’s something funny, in hindsight, about that moment involving both Swift and West, two of the most hyper-emotional pop stars of the day, neither of which seem remotely capable separate their personal lives from both their commercial and artistic endeavours.
10:13 – If anyone else was so bluntly playing into that moment in a performance like this, they’d be criticized as crass and exploitive. Swift, of course, won’t, because she’s still clinging to this fascinating innocent persona. Will she ever be allowed to grow up?
10:22 – There seems to be a disproportionate amount of cheers for Justin Timberlake versus Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg. Funny that.
10:23 – Drake gets a big coup in having Mary J. Blige perform with him, but this performance still ends up feeling flat. Frankly, there hasn’t been a single truly great performance all night. Is #yawn a trending topic on Twitter yet?
10:27 – If there are “professional VMAs,” does that make the rest of this show unprofessional?
10:28 – You know, if you’re going to have “professional awards,” and say that they’re to celebrate the creative and technical visionaries behind the videos, you might want to actually NAME THOSE VISIONARIES instead of just reading the names of the categories and winning videos. Just saying.
10:36 – Best Hip Hop Video reinforces the night’s “let’s not share the wealth” theme as Eminem takes the trophy home. It’s almost like they’re trying to ensure the categories are logically consistent for once (as in, since Eminem won “Best Male Video” he should also win “Best Hip Hop Video”). Kanye is probably pleased about this.
10:42 – We still have performances from B.O.B. and Paramore, Linkin Park and Kanye to come, plus two awards. All in 17 minutes? Clock’s ticking.
10:45 – Oh so that’s the rub! Transitions! Starts with Bruno Mars on solo piano before B.O.B. comes in drop a verse on “Nothin’ On You,” followed by a quick transition to Haley Williams singing the “Airplanes” hook. Credit to B.O.B.—he’s performing with more energy than pretty much anyone else tonight. The performance ends with the rest of Paramore appearing on stage to play “The Only Exception,” which is pretty boring. Seriously, is #yawn trending yet?
10:47 – ROBYN! She shows up for one of those pre-commercial segues singing to a fuzzed-up remix of “Dancing on my Own.” Nice that the actual Pop Song of the Year got some play.
10:54 – Best New Artist is fan-voted, which means this is pretty much Bieber’s locked and sealed. He nearly gets lost trying to find his way up on stage, but elects to perform his own acceptance speech.
10:59 – Linkin Park get the requisite “off-site” performance at the Griffith Observatory high over Los Angeles. I’m still not quite sure what to make of “The Catalyst.” There’s something almost Depeche-Mode-y about it, and it’s certainly TRYING to be an anthem, but there’s also not really much of a hook. It’s like it’s hunting for a gigantic chorus that it never really finds, and it really outstays its welcome. The band LOOKS pretty amazing though; whoever decided to shoot them playing with the faint sun setting over the mountains deserves props.
11:06 – Absolutely no surprise with Video of the Year, which goes deservedly to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Surprising: that, umm, Cher shows up to present it? It’s strange enough that I’ll forgive the awful jokes they gave her. Oh and Gaga cries again. #Yawn (Oh, she does announce that her record is going to be called Born This Way)
11:08 – Aziz Ansari gives a cute opening to…Mr. West.
11:13 – All alone on the black and white stage, wearing an all-red suit, West takes to the drum machine and starts playing with his samples while ballerinas dance around. “Runaway” is piano driven, half rap/half sung. “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the assholes,” he sings. Oh and the autotune is back. It’s not nearly as strange as when he unveiled “Love Lockdown” two years ago — it’s a pretty great beat and damn catchy — but one can’t help Yeezy thinks it’s a bigger, more important song than it actually is.
11:16 – The night ends! No Kanye/Swift crossover, which is fascinating since you know that MTV would have done everything in their power to MAKE that happen were it possible. So who declined? Thoughts to ponder over sleep!. G’night, y’all.