Green Day & Frank Ocean Thrill, Alicia Keys & One Direction Don’t, In Directionless VMAs

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  • Frank Ocean
    Frank Ocean
    American singer and songwriter

We all know the MTV Video Music Awards show was timed to be over on the East Coast before President Obama's speech started. But it was as if MTV also wanted to help the President by making sure nothing remotely noteworthy would happen to overshadow him in the news the next day. The Democratic National Convention thanks you, MTV; the rest of us listless viewers, not so much.

A few ups and downs from the 2012 VMAs, inasmuch as we could remember anything about the show at all a few minutes into the President's address:

HIGH: Although MTV was arguably built on rock 'n' roll, the genre now seems about as rare at the VMAs as protest music is in a Russian Orthodox cathedral—speaking of the "Free Pussy Riot" T-shirt one of members of Green Day was wearing. So Green Day's mid-show appearance was a huge breath of fresh air for rock-starved viewers. Happily, the new song they debuted from their upcoming set of albums, "Let Yourself Go," had the fun-and-furious spirit of late-'70s Britpunk, even if a chorus that consisted of the title phrase sung a dozen times probably wouldn't have made the late Hal David green with envy.

LOW: Alicia Keys is one of the most talented singer-songwriters of the MTV generation, but you wouldn't know it from the simplistic, dumbed-down "This Girl Is On Fire," which sounds like an overly plodding remake of her half of Jay-Z's "Empire State Of Mind."

[PHOTOS: Highlights from the 2012 VMAs]

Hearing the song repeated minutes later in a credit card commercial didn't bolster its appeal. Ironically, despite the title, Keys was seemingly one of the few performers of the night not to employ pyro in her stage design. The number appeared ready to take off when Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas came out to add an athletic component, but oddly, even Douglas didn't appear on fire.

HIGH: Frank Ocean had not just the most understated performance of the evening, but the best—shades of Adele last year. He sang "Thinking About You" accompanied only by an electric rhythm guitarist, and brought the quiet heat it never would've occurred to any of the night's other performers to attempt. Even his pyromania was understated, as flames appeared behind him in a controlled burn instead of explosions. Some commentators immediately snarked that Ocean's un-showy number was the opposite of a watercooler moment. But viewers disagreed; late in the show, MTV announced that his appearance was the most tweeted-about of the night. (One of those tweets was from Lady Gaga: "Watch Frank Ocean steal this whole show. I'm dead.")

LOW: Rihanna got the show off to a non-riveting start with a medley of her raunchy "Cockiness" and not-so-dirty "We Found Love." The show's producers seemed to have little faith in Rihanna's performing abilities, as the stage production seemed designed to obscure her at every turn—first, when she strolled among the adoring throngs on the floor of the arena, and later, when she was again rendered invisible by huge white balls that dropped from the ceiling. (Since a balloon drop had been nixed for the President's convention appearance, maybe MTV was able to get a bargain price on falling orbs.)

HIGH: Taylor Swift ended the show with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," which is looking to be the biggest song of 2012. Its sing-song-iness doesn't negate its pop genius, and putting the lie to the meme that she doesn't do well on awards shows, the ponytailed, short-shorts-wearing star actually belted out a few notes that Max Martin wouldn't let her on the recording.

[Related: Rihanna, One Direction Top VMAs]

HIGH: Though he didn't perform, Drake still managed a memorable moment in his acceptance speech, talking about growing up "black and Jewish" and taking time to "dedicate this award to any kid who's ever had a long walk home by himself."

LOW: From all indications, former collaborators Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are not currently members of each other's fan clubs. The show cut to Rihanna decidedly not applauding when Minaj was taking the stage to accept an award. But according to a tweet from "The Real World" cast member Trishelle Cannatella, we'd missed some drama. Tweeted Cannatella: "Omg #VMAs inside scoop. Nicki Minaj just told Rhianna to 'sit the [expletive] down' when she tried to hug her!!! Love it!!!"

HIGH: Pink is hard not to love, even when she's repeating herself. And it looked like she was headed into rerun territory when, after singing the "I'm coming up" part of "Get This Party Started," she literally went up with one of her patented aerial stunts. Thankfully, that was just to transport her from one stage to another, and she spent the rest of her performance of "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" earthbound. It wasn't one of her more memorable awards-show spots, but her verve carried the day. And you just about can't go wrong with suspenders as a female fashion statement, or dancers with giant candy lips for heads.

LOW: Host Kevin Hart set the dullsville tone with the least edgy VMAs monologue ever. It's understandable that the channel would want to swing away from the petty insult comedy of Russell Brand…but this far away? Hart's opener kept America's faces unanimously straight with "jokes" about how the Chris Brown/Drake brawl really had to do with a misunderstanding over recycling…how Frank Ocean was forced to come out when he accidentally sang "Leroy" instead of "Lisa" in the studio…and how Kristen Stewart made "Adultery" an addition to the Seven Dwarves. Ironically, his only remotely cutting gag had MTV's hiring Brand to host twice on a list of "mistakes." But that's kind of like the pot calling the kettle humorless.

LOW: One Direction didn't appear to be singing along all that vociferously to the huge, pre-recorded chorus of "One Thing." And they definitely weren't doing any choreography. Which begs the question, at least for some of us over 16: What do they do, again?

[Related: Complete list of 2012 VMAs winners]

LOW: Huge swaths of "Yuck," the collaboration between 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, were bleeped. Just as informative, though, were some of the lewd parts of the song that MTV didn't consider censor-able, like slang for the part of a woman's body that 2 Chainz wants to turn into "casserole." Compared to this, the telecast's commercial for Trojan condoms seemed pretty G-rated.

LOW: We were treated to an "exclusive clip" from the final Twilight movie, which was accurate, if by "exclusive clip" you usually think "trailer." Robert Pattinson was there and, of course, Kristen Stewart was not, since America is still judging her by the high moral standards they've come to expect from wholesome entertainers like 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne.

LOW: 2 Chainz actually was not the lewdest attraction of the night. That honor belonged to actress Rebel Wilson, who besides being repeatedly seen as "Fat Amy" in a commercial for the upcoming comedy Pitch Perfect, also got to appear live wearing an anatomically correct T-shirt that any other network would have blurred, on top of making jokes about what she would do with co-presenters The Wanted (or all by herself). Her big break hasn't even arrived in theaters yet and Wilson was already overstaying her welcome.

LOW: Demi Lovato, who currently has the number-one pop radio song in the country with "Give Your Heart A Break," had her performance relegated to the pre-show. Give Sonny a chance!