There was something symbolic about Nicki Minaj's wardrobe malfunction during the opening number of the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. As she clutched the pieces of her dress together, viewers thought they might be about to see something a lot more interesting or provocative than they ever ultimately got.
The two-hour-plus telecast was most notable for what we didn't see: The six-foot snake that got banished after biting one of Minaj's dancers during rehearsals. Last year's pariah/heroine, Miley Cyrus, singing or saying a word. And anything remotely resembling rock 'n' roll. Where's a foam finger or guitar when you need one?
Here are 10 moments from the show that had us wanting to either "Shake It Off" or just sleep it off:
Beyoncé's telethon. Her nine-month-old, self-titled album currently sits at No. 88 on the charts, so you wouldn't say it's dominating the cultural conversation at this late date. Nonetheless, Beyoncé chose to close the show with a medley of all 14 songs from the album, mystifying the 99-percent-plus of Americans who aren't intimately familiar with it. Feminist messages flashed on the screens behind her, immediately preceded by dancers doing the usual pole-grinding, making the epic performance seem part infomercial, part empowerment seminar, part Skinemax movie. All this, and Blue Ivy, too!
Sam Smith's Adele moment. Remember how Adele transfixed everyone at the 2011 VMAs with the simplest possible reading of "Someone Like You"? Smith may not quite have her star power, but he came awfully close to recreating that excitingly stripped-down dynamic by singing "Stay With Me," accompanied only by a keyboard player, and knocking it out of the Forum. If that wasn't a jaw-dropping moment, there were certainly some chins on the floor later in the show when Smith was beat out in the Artist to Watch category… no, not by the currently rising Charli XCX, which would be understandable, but… Fifth Harmony? Was he being punk'd?
Miley Cyrus's Marlon Brando moment. In an echo of Brando sending a Native American to accept his Oscar at the 1973 Academy Awards, Cyrus had a (formerly?) homeless young man accept her trophy for "Wrecking Ball." He nervously read from notes and urged viewers to go to her Facebook page for information on how to donate to a shelter for homeless youth in Hollywood. The sight of Cyrus looking on tearfully from her seat couldn't help but seem just a wee bit self-aggrandizing to some cynics, but at least she was using the moment to point her figurative foam finger in a useful direction.
Common makes sure America doesn't forget its Ferguson moment. "Hip-hop has always been about truth and has been a powerful instrument of social change," said the rapper, pointing to socially conscious performers from Melle Mel to Kendrick Lamar as a lead-in to getting to the news of the month. "I want us all to take a moment of silence for Mike Brown and for peace in this country and this world," he said, silencing the arena. Then he got everyone whispering again by presenting an award to Drake, who was unfortunately absent, preventing us from seeing the two partners-in-beefing getting to hug it out.
5 Seconds of Summer wimpily wave the rock flag. It's been "an amazing year for rock," said presenter Nina Dobrev, speaking for absolutely no one. The sole representatives of that genre on the show were this young band, whose powerless power ballad indicated they want nothing more than to be the Goo Goo Dolls when they grow up.
Taylor Swift reminds us that bedazzlement is a girl's best friend. Swift's "Shake It Off" production number began with a knowing overhead shot right out of a Busby Berkeley musical, and continued with a slew of tuxedo'd dancers seemingly paying homage to Madonna paying homage to Marilyn Monroe. The number was punctuated by a weird but sly joke in which Swift threatened but failed to jump off a towering sign into the arms of her dancers, noting that "people are getting bitten by snakes," among other mishaps. The real joke? While her new "Shake It Off" video makes a gag out of her not being able to dance, she hoofed it just fine at the VMAs.
Maroon 5 sit at the kids' table outside the arena. It was only three years ago that a frustrated Adam Levine tweeted, "The VMAs — one day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music… F--- you VMAs." Apparently he's forgiven the show, though their relegating Maroon 5 to outside status may show they still don't trust him coming inside the hall. We wonder how many people driving through Inglewood saw that big "M" set and tried to pull in to buy a Big Mac.
Ed Sheeran and Lorde's wins prove that maybe MTV really does still care about music. Although you could make a more convincing case for that if either one of them had performed as well as accepted.
Usher and Nicki: all about that bass. Usher picked up a bass guitar to play a few licks while he bumped repeatedly into Minaj's ample behind. It's all about the bottom end — get it? Get it? If the evening had one running theme, it was that Sir Mix-A-Lot was way ahead of his time. Presenter Chelsea Handler quipped that she knew "there's gonna be a lot of big, fat asses at that awards show," adding, "I will present, but you have to put me up after someone who's white. So thank you, Taylor Swift, for being so white."
Ariana Grande and Jessie J belt, while Nicki looks for a belt. Grande's star presence proved she'd earned the move up from preshow last year to show-opener this year. And Jessie matched her in lung power, pulling off one of the evening's best outfits, too, a miniskirt that showed the requisite expanse of skin while also looking stylish and classy. Poor Minaj, then, left without her anaconda and unable to show off whatever that malfunctioning outfit was designed to reveal.
Here's the complete list of 2014 VMA winners:
Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award: Beyoncé
Video of the Year: Miley Cyrus, "Wrecking Ball"
Best Male Video: Ed Sheeran, "Sing"
Best Female Video: Katy Perry, "Dark Horse"
Artist to Watch: Fifth Harmony, "Miss Movin' On"
Best Pop Video: Ariana Grande, "Problem"
Best Rock Video: Lorde, "Royals"
Best Hip-Hop Video: Drake, "Hold On, We're Going Home"
MTV Clubland Award: Zedd (featuring Hayley Williams), "Stay the Night"
Best Collaboration: Beyoncé (featuring Jay-Z), "Drunk in Love"
Best Video with a Social Message: Beyoncé, "Pretty Hurts"
Best Lyric Video: 5 Seconds of Summer, "Don't Stop"
Best Direction: DJ Snake and Lil Jon, "Turn Down for What" (Directors: DANIELS)
Best Choreography: Sia, "Chandelier" (Choreographer: Ryan Heffington)
Best Visual Effects: OK Go, "The Writing's on the Wall" (Visual Effects: 1stAveMachine)
Best Art Direction: Arcade Fire, "Reflektor" (Art Director: Anastasia Masaro)
Best Editing: Eminem ,"Rap God" (Editor: Ken Mowe)
Best Cinematography: Beyoncé, "Pretty Hurts" (Directors of Photography: Darren Lew and Jackson Hunt)