1. Might as well start with Miley, as it seems she’s what everyone is talking about (or GIFing) today. Cyrus performed “We Can’t Stop” before Robin Thicke came out to duet with her on “Blurred Lines,” which then transitioned to Thicke’s new single “Give It 2 U” with Kendrick Lemar and 2 Chainz. Under normal circumstances, Thicke’s Beatlejuice suit would have been the conversation topic of choice, but Miley’s tongue, her dancing in general, and her twerking into Thicke’s crotch specifically sucked all the oxygen out of the room. My question: why do people seem more bothered about Cyrus’ shallow “I’m an adult now!!” gestures than similar provocations from pop stars past? (Britney, sure, but also Miley herself – remember “Can’t Be Tamed”?) In part, I think it’s her complicated appropriation of black signifiers, but it’s also the delivery, the millennial LOOK AT ME enthusiasm with which she does it. She wasn’t doing anything that wasn’t already in the (excellent) video for “We Can’t Stop,” but removed from the evocative cinematography/editing, it loses all its artistry. It’s like someone forgot to tell Miley that “We Can’t Stop” is a legitimate hit; she really doesn’t need to try that hard.
2. Cyrus’ dance moves stole the watercooler thunder away from the evening’s other big headline — the N’Sync appearance — which wasn’t difficult because there was hardly any thunder there. With word of the collaboration leaking in advance of the ceremony, the actual “reunion” amounted to a minute-long segment in the midst of a giant Timberlake greatest hits medley prior to his receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. No one in the group received any closeup shots at all (to the point where I actually wondered which, if any, were impostors) and choosing “Girlfriend” — the Neptunes collaboration that set the stage for Timberlake’s solo career — for the setlist alongside “Bye Bye Bye” was telling. Last night, JT performed a work-in-progress musical autobiography and he gave N’Sync little more than a fleeting footnote.
3. On the Vanguard Award: most of the VMAs are meaningless excuses to get as many artists up on stage as possible. (This is why there’s no internal logic. How can “Mirrors” win Video of the Year but lose Best Male Video to Bruno Mars? Was it not “male” enough?) But the Video Vanguard Award actually has a rather legitimate lineage: there’s a ton of holes it has yet to remedy (wherefore art thou, Spike Jonze?) but, by and large, it actually has recognized key contributors to music video as both art form and commerce. But that kind of ended last night. Even the most recent winner, Britney Spears, has produced more iconic videos than Timberlake, whose video catalogue is rather undistinguished. It’s sort of sad to see one of the last vestiges of the VMAs’ credibility (perhaps its only one) coming to an end.
4. The night’s most interesting censoring? Whoever was working the mute button was hot on the lookout for drug references. “Molly” (a popular nickname for ecstasy) was censored in Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves,” and (more importantly) the network erred on the side of caution and muted the year’s blurriest line: the pre-chorus of Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” in which it’s near-impossible to tell if she’s singing “dancing with Miley” or “dancing with Molly.” Apparently, someone at MTV thinks it’s “Molly.”
5. You could almost sorta hear it on TV, but apparently the Brooklyn crowd erupted in massive booing when One Direction won the fan-voted Song of the Summer category. I bet Pete Townshend would have voted for it, though.
6. In contrast, the boos that greeted the start of Lady Gaga‘s show-opening performance were piped in, the singer casting her own backlash before attempting an equally manufactured redemption. She’s not wrong that her stock has fallen after the noble-but-flawed Born this Way, and there was an endearing simplicity to her “evolution of Gaga” costuming during the performance of “Applause.” But I wonder to what degree Gaga’s postmodernism is now her own worst enemy: how much of this backlash is about how non-devotees aren’t sure exactly who they’re listening to? (I did appreciate the idea that our culture moves so quickly now that Gaga gets to do a career retrospective fashion review after a mere four years in the spotlight.)
7. I’m not as big a fan of the second half of Yeezus as most people seem to be, so “Blood on the Leaves” felt like an odd choice. But you know Kanye West, never one to repeat himself, and his pitch-dark silhouette performance was a highlight, delivered with his trademark hyperpassion.
8. One of the few performers to rival West in terms of on-stage passion was Bruno Mars, who gave his all in a laser-adorned performance of “Gorilla.” A shame, then, that “Gorilla” is one of Unorthodox Jukebox‘s weaker tracks. (I would have gone with “Moonshine” as the next single.)
9. Speaking of singles, twice Katy Perry‘s “Roar” was referred to as “her biggest song ever,” and I really, really want someone to justify that metric to me.
10. Anything other than “Blurred Lines” winning “Video of the Year” is, by the nature of the category’s title, absurd. So yep: absurd night.