At the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift and Kanye West both unveiled brand new songs about the same topic: Kanye West.
But the two performers had wildly differing views on their mutual subject matter. Somewhat contrary to expectations, Swift’s song was pro-Kanye, in its fashion, while West’s self-lacerating confessional was anti-Kanye.
These two will never be on the same page, will they?
In the end, neither tune was necessarily a classic for the ages, but it was intriguing to hear zeitgeist artists approaching controversy in thoughtfully autobiographical new music rather than, you know, tweets. And the Swift and West appearances added what little drama there was to an anticlimactic show that mostly rode on the coattails of last year’s water-cooler moment-filled telecast.
Galvanizing, love-’em-or-hate-’em stars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were relegated to non-performing slots, meaning the only live fireworks were provided by Taylor’s and Kanye’s glancing lyrical allusions to last September. This 2010 sequel could have been titled "The 2009 MTV Video Music Awards: The Afterthought."
A few highlights and lowlights:
Swift forgiveness. Midway through the telecast, Swift debuted a tune she wrote after last year’s VMAs debacle, when West rushed the stage and declared her an unworthy winner right in the middle of her acceptance speech. Anyone expecting the new song to be a rant in the vengeful tradition of her broadsides against ex-boyfriends had to have been taken aback by the ballad’s solemn tone and lyrics, which offered only one immediately specific reference to West, mentioning his age at the time of last year’s show.
"You’re still an innocent, 32 and growing up now," she sang, in a maternal-sounding chorus, bolstered by a hairdo straight out of a 1940s glamour session. "Wasn’t it easy… in fly-catching days… before the monsters caught up to you? It’s all right, just wait and see. Your string of lights are still bright to me… Time turns flames to embers. You’ll have new Septembers. Every one of us has messed up too…"
West-ern mea culpas. If you tuned in wanting to hear someone sing about what a big jerkola Kanye is, your viewing was not in vain, as West was all too happy to oblige, swinging back—for the moment?—to the anti-hubris, self-denigration side of his mood pendulum.
Coming out in a red suit in a blindingly white stage setup, West didn’t sound much like the "innocent" Swift described him as earlier. "I always find something wrong/You been putting up with my [bleeped] too long," he sang, seeming to be addressing an intimate partner he’d wronged, as opposed to Swift herself. "I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most/So I think it’s time for us to have a toast…" He then offered that "toast" to the "scumbags" of the world, along with a lot of less printable terms, before offering this advice: "Run away fast as you can… Run away from me baby."
Like Swift, he strode off the stage at a rapid clip at the conclusion of his number, as if both of them meant to say, There will be no questions. Oh, but there will, there will, when fans comb through their respective albums for psychological clues this fall.
Diva-lessness. Sure, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry both seem to have performed on every awards telecast in the last two years and are dangerously exposed. But this show could have used them as performers and not just presenters or winners. Like West and Swift, Gaga also debuted a new song—but in a very fleeting, a capella snippet that she belted out during her final acceptance speech of the evening.
"I promised if I won this tonight," Gaga said, holding her Video of the Year award—the last of eight trophies her videos won before and during the telecast—"I’d announce the name of my new album." Actually, she’d mentioned the title earlier, although she made it official in her last trip to the podium by singing a few bars of the title song of her forthcoming release… Born This Way.
Anyone who feels he or she was specifically created by God to wear animal innards as outerwear: Anthem, incoming!
Perry neither performed nor won, but as a presenter, a red-carpet favorite, and a subject of host Chelsea Handler’s jokes, her presence fed into the general nostalgia for the 2009 awards show, as everyone recalled how she met fiancee Russell Brand on that night that shall go down in infamy. A night without Perry performing with some kind of fruit adorning her cleavage is like a day without sunshine.
Later, Chelsea. The host announced at the outset that she was a little woozy from being in a prayer circle with Snoop Dogg, which might explain the lack of sharpness in Handler’s musty, not-very-outrageous one-liners about the most obvious possible targets. Jokes about how young and virginal Justin Bieber is might as well have been leftovers from Russell Brand’s rude riffs on the Jonas Brothers in MTV years past.
An opening backstage sketch where Lindsay Lohan told Handler to lay off the sauce should have been a highlight, but Lohan was apparently also cured of her ability to handle comedy while in rehab. The one laugh-worthy moment: Handler crawled into a hot tub with the cast of Jersey Shore and crawled out nine months pregnant.
But talk about missed opportunities. You release a dove on stage and then don’t make a Kings of Leon pigeon joke?
Fears of heights. Wherever that dove settled in the rafters of the Nokia Theatre, it was probably near the evening’s most-used camera, which offered plenty of overhead views of choreography of people laying down on the stage, in performances by Florence & the Machine and others. Taylor Swift’s hairdo wasn’t the only ’30s/’40s-styled element of the evening. Busby Berkeley lives!—even if the dance moves choreographed for the overhead camera couldn’t have made much sense to the live audience on the ground.
The award for best, most fantastic, world-beating hyperbole. That would be a tie. At the start, an announcer declared, "Welcome to the biggest night of the year." Eat MTV’s dust, Christmas, New Year’s, and Halloween!
But then there was the presenter who breathlessly announced that Usher has "the grace of a classical performer." Which was exactly right, because not since Baryshnikov lip-synched his way through a tribute to Tron has there been such a classical performance as Usher’s "OMG."
Finally, Justin Timberlake introduced Drake as "the most exciting new artist in music right now," right before a number in which, while creditable, the most exciting new artist in music was completely overshadowed by duet partner Mary J. Blige.
The suspense of the live voting for best new artist. In a shocking upset, Broken Bells were beaten by Justin Bieber. Ernst & Young probably had to do a hand-recount for that particular photo finish.
Bieber-mania, unabated. There was something a little creepy about the rampant sexualization of Justin Bieber by the grown women on the show, from Handler’s gags to a nearly naked-looking Kardashian gal joking that the teen star ha
d gotten a restraining order against her. It was sheer coincidence that Bieber’s performance of "Baby" was immediately followed by a contraception commercial… we hope.
Bieber’s outdoor number on the Nokia plaza was not a highlight, particularly with all those male backup dancers in "B" letterman jackets, as if Bieber Academy is a school every guy aspires to attend. But it did end nicely with the heartthrob taking a drum solo, showing that he wants to be Nick Jonas when he grows up.
Better red than dead. Sometimes it seemed like every woman at the show was a redhead. Florence, of "& the Machine" fame? Check. Hayley Williams of Paramour, who sang with B.o.B.? Rihanna? Check. In a poufy white skirt, white halter top, and red ‘do, Ri-ri looked a little like how Amy Adams might have after losing her innocence in an Enchanted sequel.
MIA-inem. Rihanna’s "surprise" appearance at the end of Eminem’s opening performance added some flair to an otherwise surprisingly unremarkable medley. The self-help platitudes and cheesy kettle drums on "Not Afraid" just don’t represent the Em we know and fear, though setting the number in a mock club before he bounded onto the real Nokia stage did bring back some nice 8 Mile flashbacks.
But when it was announced that Enimem had already left by the time he won two on-air awards, it was as if his early departure symbolized waning interest in the show. Explaining his absence, the presenters were forced to keep saying the superstar rapper had had to catch a flight to New York to perform with Jay-Z at a show. Making those pressing 6 a.m. showtimes back east can really be tough on an artist.
Rock: still in hibernation. Is there such a thing as a major rock & roll band now? If so, it wasn’t represented on the VMAs. Linkin Park’s appearance seemed impressive, at least until viewers figured out that it was the Griffith Observatory setting that was impressive. But their now rap-less NIN/U2 hybrid sound didn’t exactly make them rebels without a cause. If there was a rock band you’ll remember from the evening, unfortunately, it may be the group in that annoying credit-check commercial.
The what awards? "God bless pop music and God bless MTV," said Lady Gaga… leaving viewers puzzled as to what those two things have to do with each other. More explicable was Gaga’s best line of the night: "I never thought I’d be asking Cher to hold my meat purse."
Meat purse (and dress) or no, at least Gaga didn’t shed any blood, guts, or gore during the course of this particular evening. But "bloodless" probably isn’t the way the 2010 VMAs would prefer to be remembered.
What were the standouts and low points for you?