Think back to some of the MTV Video Music Awards’ most memorable onstage moments -- from Madonna’s open-mouth kiss with Britney Spears to Kanye West’s Taylor Swifterruption -- and you’d probably agree that the show was never known for its subtlety. So why then were audiences both at home and at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center so offended by Miley Cyrus’ raunchy performance on the 2013 edition?
It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen a former Disney star gone bad, nor is it a rarity for a VMA artist to skirt the basic cable line of an NC-17 rating. What made it so cringe-worthy (there’s no better evidence than this crowd shot of Will Smith and his kids with mouths agape) was its crassness -- from the song itself (catchy but mind-numbingly silly and about five minutes away from sounding dated) to Cyrus’ choice of wardrobe (a stoned-out leotard) and stage props (big-butted teddy bears) reminiscent of a bad acid trip. Instead of singing along to “We Can’t Stop,” it seemed more fitting for the horrified masses to scream, please, stop!
Robin Thicke’s appearance half-way through the song didn’t help matters much. While Cyrus crotch-grabbed, fake-fingered herself and dry-humped the 36-year-old singer, audience members collectively gasped. “Blurred Lines,” the fun-loving song of the summer, was now tainted. Often criticized for what are perceived to be “rapey” lyrics, you could easily add the word “statutory” onto that judgment. Thicke is, after all, nearly old enough to be Cyrus’ father.
Thank goodness for 2 Chainz who put a stop to the madness by taking center stage, along with Kendrick Lamar, for the “Give It 2 U” portion of the mid-show medley.
So is it a sign of the times or of desperation when one such act completely takes over the conversation? So much so that you almost forget who else was on the star-heavy VMAs bill? Or was that the plan all along? To shock the masses and stir a social media frenzy while corporate sponsors clapped along, gleefully counting impressions? Never mind the countless tweens and teens who may come away from the telecast scarred, or the adults who feel like they need a shower.
Those answers are not easy to come by. For more than a decade now, MTV has been struggling to find its identity as a music-light channel targeting young adults and nowhere is that more painfully felt than at the VMAs, which tries to balance today’s pop hitmakers with its own sense of nostalgia, yet doesn’t want to admit how old it really is (30, but who's counting?).
This year’s edition really is the textbook example if only in its inconsistencies. Justin Timberlake, the Video Vanguard recipient and a veteran of music videos going back to the late-1990s, took up what seemed like half of the show’s second hour with a medley of his solo hits, yet the NSync reunion portion of his performance, which had the likes of Lady Gaga screaming like a little girl, seemed to last only seconds.
Kanye West, whose seven previous VMAs bows were always memorable displays of art and dance, chose to perform his latest, “Blood on the Leaves,” in silhouette. While the highly touted Daft Punk appearance was just that -- an appearance. No one would “Get Lucky” on Sunday night.
Disappointments extended to those who weren’t there: Brooklyn’s own Jay Z, the surviving Beastie Boys, not one performing rock band in a borough teeming with them. And Brooklyn itself sort of got shafted. Sure, Katy Perry debuted a boxing themed performance of “Roar” against a stunning Brooklyn Bridge backdrop and major artists made their entrances at the carpeted corner of Dean St. and 6th Ave., but that was about it -- a shame considering previous VMA love letters to such cities as Las Vegas and Miami.
On the other hand, the performances that truly resonated had the fewest bells and whistles. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” brought class and compassion to the forefront and, with the addition of guest vocalist Jennifer Hudson, added Oscar-winning star-power to the mix. Bruno Mars’ “Gorilla,” with a stage set-up lifted from his current tour, was minimally choreographed but massively moving and probably the best showing of the night. Drake had plenty of pyro for his performance of "Started From the Bottom" and "Hold On, We're Going Home," but the parts that got the crowd most riled up was when the rapper simply rapped.
And lest we forget, Lady Gaga who, with the exception of her too-long Joe Calderone drag act in 2011, truly understands the purpose of a VMA performance: to leave a lasting impression that doesn’t require an application of Nonoxynol-9. To wit: opening number “Applause,” delivered in five different expertly coordinated looks, the last of which had mama monster in a barely there seashell bikini top and G-string -- her outfit for the rest of the night.
In the end, the best and worst acts of the night both screamed for attention by showing a lot of skin with varying degrees of substance. What does that say about today’s VMAs? Perhaps that the unsung heroes are the Brazilian waxers of the world and not much more.