The MTV Video Music Awards was a conservative show, not a bad thing: A review

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.

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: MTV’s 2011 VMAs winners: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Adele big winners

MTV 2011 VMAs: Beyonce’s baby bump, the moving Amy Winehouse tribute, and other memorable moments

Comments (73 total) Add your comment
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  • UGH

    Not a big fan of Adam Levine but his Tweet about MTV’s VMA was right on target.
    THAT should be the big story on this site.

    • poopachu

      haha, this dude is jealous of justin bieber. lmfao. failing.

      • ^

        ok…

      • quan

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    • Olive

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  • Matt

    Definitely agree with you about Justin. That was so pretentious. I love all these “artists” who thank “god”. Yes, let’s thank our imaginary friends for winning… a moonman?

    (Let the flame war begin)

    • B

      Talk about imaginary friends? Those are the ones who hang around only when things are looking up and leave when it fades away. At least these people have an inspiration in their lives, you pagan doucebag. And pretty much agnostic too. Live and let live, dork.

  • jets

    Yeah Matt, let’s use this space to now verbally fight over the existance of god and how it pertains to Justin Beiber and the Moonman. *roll eyes*

  • jt

    I agree about the Bieb. Wow…he could have looked any more bored?! It drives me crazy when people thank God for their awards. Really? Do you really think he has nothing better to do than think…hmmm….let’s give the Bieb an award…..what a good boy he is.

    • PN

      Don’t want to knock Tyler the Creator, but shouldn’t he have prepared an acceptance speech instead of cursing excessively when finding out that he won? He needs some media training on that with staying clean on the content. It looked distracting and a little offending the way he let out those expletives on the podium on stage.

      • RhFactorNegative

        He was equally rude, crude and disrespectful in the preshow. That is what happens when you take people and give them instant fame without them working for it.

      • LOL

        Whatever. What kind of behavior can u possiibly expect from someone w/ a d#$chebag name like “Tyler the Creator”. My IQ just went down 100 points typing that…

      • Brian

        It’s “acts” like that that make me weep for the future of the music industry. Is that the best that MTV can offer as a best new “artist”? A foul mouthed piece of street trash? It’s really a shame that so many young people today are growing up with trash like that being paraded around and being given awards for being nothing more than a punk. God help the music industry.

    • PN

      Justin Bieber looked very much out of place at that awards show. He’s very much a teen pop singer and looked out of place when being around people at or near twice his age at the VMAs. And I didn’t like the outfit with the red pants–it looked so disconnected!

    • Ana170

      They aren’t thanking God for the awards. They’re thanking him for their blessings in life, or something. I’m not at all religious but I really can’t think why those who are shouldn’t be thanking God during an acceptance speech.

      • Kelcie

        Amen.

  • jets

    but I agree, I’m sick of beibs and his perfume line and nail polish and gullible little tween girl fans.

    • ^

      Don’t fret.
      This time, next year he will be outed as the laughing stock that he already is.
      Guaranteed.

  • Empty Vee

    What does the M in MTV stand for?

    • ^

      Mediocre

    • Mel

      MORONIC

    • Luis PJ

      What dose the E in ESPN stand for?

    • Friggin Tommy Noble

      Actually the M stands for “MEEEAAAGGGUUHAAAHHHGGLLLL (spit)” followed by a puddle of vomit.

  • PN

    I look past the conservative nature the writer thought of the show! The whole awards show was great! Many times over the top! There was more focus on the performances than the awards! I like that some of the artists decided to do album cuts from their albums than their big hit singles. Lady Gaga stayed true to her character form of the male-like outfit she wore. The Kanye West and Jay-Z performance was solid and stayed very true to hip-hop! Adele sounded great in her performance. Loved Chris Brown’s dance heavy performance. And Jesse J sounded astounding in her performances before and after the commercial breaks. The graphics for the awards show were very good with the big letters, even the artists’ names and even the products for the commercials! The Amy Winehouse tribute was beautiful with rare footage of Tony Bennett recording with Amy Winehouse. Russell Brand’s tribute to Amy was poignant as well as special, that he personally got to see the singer perform as well as meet her. Bruno Mars’ performance was top notch when he and his band performed one of Amy’s songs. Liked the Britney Spears’ tribute with the dancers,each representing one character and image out of many of her videos. Britney loved it Beyonce’s performance was great. But I think that the Jay-Z/Kanye performance outdid Lil’ Wayne’s average performance. Weezy’s performance was better off at his I Am Music tour concerts than that stage last night. I think that Jay and Ye stole the show from Wayne.

    • Cameron J

      Oh my god, finally, someone who’s not cynical and hateful in their posts, yet logical. I agree with most of what you said, but the very nature of your posts made my day.

  • PN

    I think that Beyonce’s performance last night might give a much needed boost to her 4 album. That people who didn’t get the album in late June or missed it will finally pick it up and find out how well done the songs on it are.

    • Alex

      I agree – she was a LOT of goodwill after last night, and revealing her pregnancy at such a public event was a huge move for her and Jay-Z, a couple that has always been so private and guarded. They were so elated and enthusiastic the entire night. And while ’4′ is an incredible album, I blame the tracks that have been chosen as singles. Regardless, Beyonce is clearly doing this era on her terms. Props.

  • Brett

    Neither her performance nor pregnancy will salvage a catastrophically bad album. And how distantly out of touch is writer Ken Tucker, anyway?

    • ^

      VERY.
      He needs to be writing for LIFE magazine.

    • lisa

      “4″ is one of her best reviewed albums of he career, and it debuted at number one in 17 countries. You must be talking about J.ho

  • So

    For a review from senior housing it was predictably off base. Gaga is a vomit inducing copycat. Nothing more. Beiber is justifiably bored and will take the money and run ahead of the ticking fame clock. Tony bennett has become the “drag out the icon” puppet. Lastly MTV is a joke and has no business pretending it has anything to do with music anymore.

  • Lynne

    Thought that Britney accepting her huge award turned into her introducing Beyonce’s performance was very disrespectful to Britney. Now I havent really listened to her music over the last few years because my tastes have changed, but Britney deserved her few moments in the spotlight because she IS an iconic performer. But turning her accepting into an into for Beyonce was just wrong. Should have been done in a very different situation.

    • Lindsay

      I totally agree. She should have had time to make her own speech, and Gaga (oops, I mean Joe Calderone *roll eyes*) should have just gotten out of the way at some point. I was happy that she won best Pop Video though. It shows that she is still current as well as a legend.

  • Molly

    Usually, if you believe in Jesus, you believe Jesus is God, so thanking not just God, but Jesus, is a little redundant. Just saying. And I probably would’ve let it go had it not been JB who said it (completely insincerely, in my opinion).

    • So

      Maybe he’s saving thanking the Holy Ghost for Halloween.

      • Kelcie

        Molly: wrong. “So”: Very wrong.
        God sent Jesus in the form of man to bring salvation to us, it makes sense that he thanked Jesus as a separate entity in that context.

  • Jalal

    Ken Tucker must have been watching a different show because last night’s VMAs was a mess. It strongly needed a host, not to make us laugh but to keep the flow going. Most of the performances were terrible (except for Gaga,Adele, Beyonce, and the Winehouse tribute). Gaga’s male alter-ego was the closest thing to a personality moving the show along.

    The Britney tribute was executed poorly, her acceptance speech was turned into an introduction for Beyonce. The performances of Lil Wayne and Pit-Bull were a mess. The Jay-Z and Kanye duet needed a lot more rehearsal. And I was offended by the way the Chris Brown performance was presented, it was filmed as if we were supposed to be inspired and people like Kanye were cheering for him. If he wants to be back in the spotlight he needs to start giving humble performances and not expect to be automatically loved. And what was with Jessie J as the house band, what a disaster.

  • Holy Ghost

    What about me, Bieber ?

    • So

      See above.

  • Joe

    MTV video music awards? Shouldn’t MTV show music videos first before it hosts an awards show? I understand that they are trying to keep with the tradition. But honestly, MTV is a joke. I can say I didn’ t watch and wont till they start playing videos again.

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