The 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, or, as they’ve evolved into, the annual manifestation of the Twitter hashtag #RIPmusic, aired Sunday night. Beyoncé performed her entire album. Nicki Minaj nearly showed us her coochie. “Kim Kardashian West” made her debut as, um, that. At one point Imagine Dragons and Lorde were invoked as examples of “a pretty good year for rock,” with a straight face. An entire audience worth of miserable-looking celebrities appeared to be attending at gunpoint.
If MTV’s brand has seemed a bit schizophrenic in the past decade—simultaneously clutching onto its lingering pop-culture legacy as an important agent for social activism and change, and pandering to its increasingly prepubescent reality TV at the expense of promoting music—Sunday’s telecast was maybe the best example yet of its confusing identity. Acts with names like Fifth Harmony, 5 Seconds of Summer, and Rita Ora, who, let’s face it, a majority of the viewing audience had never heard of were trotted across stage, yet the reason we’re pretty clueless as to who they are is because the network that used to tell us, as has been long established, no longer really plays music.
But yet how can you really say that MTV doesn’t care about music anymore when it cedes almost 25 minutes to Beyoncé to perform snippets from every single track from her most recent album. Is it jarring to watch the adolescents that apparently make up Fifth Harmony giggle and hem and haw while clutching their iPhones during an acceptance speech and then see the camera inexplicably, sans introduction or explanation, pan to a slideshow of images of Robin Williams? God, yes. But maybe there’s something admirable in this once-a-year effort MTV puts forth to be this catch-all entertainment telecast for all facets of its identity—old and current—and pop culture—slight and serious.
Even with that in mind, this year’s show was all about the performances. So here’s our roundup of what you missed.
Ariana Grande, Jessie J, and Nicki Minaj—“Break Free,” “Anaconda” and “Bang Bang” Medley
Part of the reason that “Bang Bang,” musically, is such an irresistible pop song is because the trio of divas it assembled should not go together. At all. Yet somehow it works. Musically. Visually, on stage, Sunday night at the VMAs, Ariana Grande, Jessie J, and Nicki Minaj were the awkward hot mess they seem on paper.
Their medley performance started with Grande singing a brief section of “Break Free,” an underwhelming VMA debut that featured the starlet teetering around like a bedazzled Bambi while singing with a soporific, blank stare on her face. It was a confusing choice to disguise music’s best new pop voice by surrounding her with a chaotic orgy of mod-styled alien dancers, an overly busy production that served to only really highlight Grande’s greatest weakness: her underwhelming stage presence. It’s something even more apparent when the music segued into Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and the rapper exploded onto stage with her signature ferocious torque. (And twerk.)
After Minaj dropped her “Anaconda” music video last week, her performance of the song was expected to be the night’s most controversial, or at least its most polarizing, with the cultural debate it sparked over whether its copious close-ups of Minaj and her background dancers’ derrieres was an example of sexual exploitation or of female empowerment. If the bitchface Jennifer Lopez gave when the camera cut to her was any indication, it might not be the latter. Still, Minaj sold the hell out of the performance with just the right amount of camp and kitsch to make the whole thing dirty with a wink.
But for all the talk of Minaj’s butt, it’s the rapper’s vagina that we almost saw, thanks to a wardrobe malfunction she suffered when joining Grande and Jessie J for “Bang Bang” while nervously clasping a torn seam that ran down the front of her dress. Who would have thought that the talking point of that performance would have been Minaj’s effort to not bare her body to the entire world?
(Jessie J performed, too, and sounded spectacular. But fantastic vocals are no match for wardrobe malfunctions when it comes to watercooler conversation.)
Taylor Swift—“Shake It Off”
While introducing Taylor Swift’s performance of her disappointingly mainstream pop-y “Shake It Off,” Lorde referred to the song as the “beginning of a brand new era,” which—OK—is a little bit much. Still, the song is fun and catchy enough, though Swift’s performance started out a bit confusing. “Shake It Off” and its accompanying music video are all about being a goober and dancing like an offbeat weirdo. So why in the world was Swift’s performance so carefully choreographed, even sensual?
But even given that, and given the fact that “Shake It Off” is the meh-est pop song of all the pop songs, Swift’s joy is so contagious that you can’t help but delight in her performance. In one adorable bit she stood on top of a giant platform like she was about to jump off, but then performed a really cute monologue about how there was no way in hell she was going to do it. Even J. Lo, our newly minted cultural arbiter, liked that.
Sam Smith—“Stay With Me”
Kim Kardashian West’s best friend Sam Smith (ponder that while weeping gently) performed “Stay With Me.” God, is he a brilliant singer. “Stay With Me” might be the kind of saccharine song that your mom downloads onto her iPod Shuffle in six months, but goddamn if Smith doesn’t slay the vocals. Jennifer Lopez really liked it.
Usher f/ Nicki Minaj—“She Came to Give It to You”
Usher performed his brand new single. Allegedly. I’m not convinced he hasn’t performed this song at the VMAs before. It was such a standard, Usher-y song. “Is this new or is this “Love in the Club?” I thought after he had already been singing this song for a full 90 seconds. He was trying really hard, though. He was pretty sweaty by the end of the performance. Nicki Minaj did a guest rap. J. Lo seemed to be into it, though. J. Lo VMAs cutaways are the new Taylor Swift dancing at award shows cutaways.
5 Seconds of Summer—“Amnesia”
At one point in this show, a variation of this happened, in succession. Known activist rapper Common, a presenter: “How about a moment of silence for Ferguson?” Bubbly, barking VMAs announcer lady: “All right, y'all, stay tuned for 5 Seconds of Summer!” This is the baffling, awkward dichotomy that is MTV in 2014.
And what, exactly, is 5 Seconds of Summer? After their performance, it became abundantly clear that they are the answer to the question, “At one point in this telecast should I use the restroom?”
Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora—“Black Widow”
Were we a nation disappointed or a nation relieved that Iggy Azalea did not perform her VMA-nominated, endlessly played, Song of the Summer hit “Fancy”? Public opinion about the earworm track has swung so drastically since its release that it’s hard to tell. In any case, Azalea instead performed her new single, “Black Widow.” Is it good? Well, “Black Widow” was co-written by Katy Perry, which should say more about the song than even listening to it does. Something named Rita Ora performed with Azalea, looking like Rihanna and singing like Katy Perry and lacking any of their energy. J. Lo introduced the pair, and, guys, J. Lo is a big, big fan and apparently recently worked with Azalea. “Look out for the ‘Booty’ remix!” she shouted. OK, J. Lo! We will!
Maroon 5 performed, and it was such a Maroon 5 performance, which is to say there was absolutely nothing memorable in their performance or even the song they were singing but yet that totally unmemorable song will now be in your head for the next three weeks. But also seriously does it hurt when Adam Levine closes his eyes SO HARD when he sings?
“Miley Cyrus’s Acceptance Speech”
Miley Cyrus had her very own Littlefeather moment when, after winning Video of the Year for “Wrecking Ball,” she sent up a young man named Jesse in her stead to accept the trophy on behalf of all of Los Angeles’ homeless youth (while she tried really hard in the background of the camera shot). This was not a musical performance, per se, but you bet your ass this was a “performance”—albeit a well-intentioned and noble one. Miley Cyrus is our generation’s Marlon Brando. I see you, Miley.
After two hours of all the above, the viewing audience essentially was on the cusp of a riot, waiting for their musical Messiah, Beyoncé, to come and rescue them from this ratchet nonsense. She finally came. And it was good. Ohhh, it was good.
In celebration of her winning the Vanguard Award, Beyoncé performed snippets of every single song on her most recent album. Did you read that? Every single song. It was astonishing. She was brilliant, because of course she was brilliant. She’s freaking Beyoncé. Is there something to be said about the fact that singing only 75 seconds of an entire album’s worth of songs all strung in a row doesn’t actually sound like a song? Sure. But when they’re performed with the conviction and meticulous execution of Beyoncé, what should be scattershot cacophony becomes riveting art.
If you were on Twitter, you’re keenly aware of the hyperbolic levels to which everyone took Losing Their Collective Shit over this performance. I don’t want to add to the histrionics, so all I’ll say is that at one point during Beyoncé’s performance my boyfriend looked away from the TV and I questioned whether I could really be with him anymore. This is a joke, obviously, because how could you be full of anything but love—of anything but ALL OF THE FEELINGS, really—by the time Beyoncé ended her tearful call-and-response rendition of “XO” with her fans and began sobbing while receiving her Vanguard Award from Jay Z and Blue Ivy.
Amid a tornado of divorce rumors and gross speculation about infidelity and infighting, Beyoncé just went and paraded her husband in front of America, called him “My Beloved” and then gave their child a kiss on the forehead.
The MTV Video Music Awards made its name on creating lighting rod pop-culture moments, the kind that flood the country with buzz and debate in an instant and endure for decades after. Say what you want about the state of the network, but it’s safe to say that MTV—and Beyoncé—are still doing just that.