The annual MTV Video Music Awards For Videos MTV Doesn’t Play was hyped in advance for its host-free format and its Kanye-Jay-Z duet, but it turned out that the most consistent quality of the broadcast was its aesthetically conservative mien. The performances by Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Adele, Bruno Mars, and Jesse J emphasized full-throated pop music sung without bombastic, American Idol-style excessiveness. The Foo Fighters’ acceptance of their award by exhorting the viewers to “never lose faith in real rock & roll music” amounted, in this context, to the night’s most aggressive statement, while the band’s dedication of its prize to the most music-minded of MTV executives, former CEO Judy McGrath, showed an admirable display of informed gratitude for one reason why MTV initially existed.
Having Tony Bennett, among others, join in the lovely Amy Winehouse salute was part of a noble attempt to place Winehouse in a tradition of blues, R&B, and pop vocalists. Chris Brown dance-history of latterday music, including hip-hop and grunge, was well-thought-out and excitingly choreographed, even if his wire-strung ascension briefly reduced him to a Wings of Desire marionette. Lil Wayne’s bouncy, guitar-plonking close-out appearance was a rouser. Overall, the sense of history that disparate elements of the show pulled together worked to make it more engrossing than most MTV Video Awards shows. In this sense, it also helped that you didn’t have a stand-up dud like Chelsea Handler hosting to muck up the musicians with hollow bawdiness.
No, this was the year that the career-achievement Michael Jackson Vanguard Award to Britney Spears was staged as something that could have been shown (and was perhaps demographically aimed at) the Disney Channel audience, with a dance troupe including kids executing the dance moves that Spears herself doesn’t seem to want to wiggle through these days. Again, I don’t write this with disapproval, especially since Spears’ award was followed by Beyonce’s superb performance of “Love On Top” (it’s a shame her terrific 4 was not a bigger critical and commercial success). And of course, there was the celebration of the singer’s pregnancy, and shots of happy-dad Jay Z and proud, back-slapping Kanye — talk about your strong family values, without the self-righteousness.
Even the vaunted Tyler, The Creator, widely dubbed in the media as the year’s designated Controversial Pop Culture Flash-Point, gave a charmingly appreciative speech. Who cares what had to be bleeped out when his message was one of gratefulness (“I wanted this since i was nine … I’m about to cry”) and a call to “kids” to do what they dream about? We could argue about whether someone as creative as Tyler really should be desiring a pretty meaningless VMA Award, but we must agree that his giddy pleasure was disarming.
Sure, Gaga’s male drag dragged on too long, but she gets points for committing to her concept. My one very minor pet peeve is the increasingly unbearable Justin Bieber. I was never one of those early, reflexive, Bieber dislikers — the kid has talent, for sure, even if it’s in the service of mostly mawkish music. However, as his fame has grown, his irritatingly misguided idea of showing how much he’s grown up has been to make his face a blank mask. Little emotion creases his still baby-smooth features, no joy emanates from his intentionally dead eyes. Gimme a break, kid; lighten up. Accepting an award by intoning, “I’d like to dedicate this award not only to God but to Jesus… ” Who are you trying to one-up, Justy?
By contrast to the VMAs, the commercials for the MTV’s self-consciously edgy new programming Death Valley, Ridiculousness, and I Just Want My Pants Back seemed strained. (I write this based solely on the promotion — full reviews of these shows to come — and I exclude the excellently acted Awkward.) This was a night of vindication for some long-time MTV viewers: an evening in which the Jersey Shore cast seemed even more clueless and boring than usual, and when the ads for the imminent return of Beavis and Butthead suddenly seemed like a fine idea: those two animated boys are going to make mincemeat out of thick-tongued The Situation and Snooki.