Every summer, we gather around MTV’s Video Music Awards ready to rubberneck. But Sunday’s 31st annual telecast provided no such satisfaction. There were no electric shocks. No controversial performances. No juicy trash talk. Yes, lots of booty, but none of it jiggling toward new frontiers.
Despite bouncy performances from rappers Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea and others, the biggest surprise of the night was seeing an awards show that specializes in sensationalism being used to further social awareness.
Beyonce’s show-closing extravaganza positioned her in front of a giant video screen that read “FEMINIST.” Presenting the award for best hip-hop video, veteran rapper Common delivered some smart words on Ferguson. And Miley Cyrus mitigated her wild child image by inviting a young fan onstage to speak about his experiences with youth homelessness.
As the VMAs go, this was refreshingly humane stuff. And nobody had to douse themselves with a bucket of ice water.
Sadly, the show also reinforced the idea that pop music’s core value in 2014 is to help sell other stuff. After performing a dirty new disco ditty alongside Minaj, Usher popped up in a cola commercial. Katy Perry won the first trophy of the night, then appeared in an ad for cosmetics. And after some soft-rocking from Maroon 5, another one of the band’s songs soundtracked a car commercial where giant hamster scientists learn how to transform regular hamsters into sexy, human-babe-sized hamsters, which is wayyyy freakier than any Maroon 5 song will ever be. Alas.
Between the commercials, there were banal performances from ascendant British soul man Sam Smith, Nickelodeon graduate Ariana Grande, and emo boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, none of whom appeared to be having much fun.
And who knows how Taylor Swift was really feeling up there. Performing her new single “Shake It Off,” she assumed the defensive crouch depicted in the song’s lyrics, which portray her as a lowly pop outsider and a magnet for snark. Executing the song’s choreography, Swift scaled a platform, looked over the edge, then stepped back, as if chickening-out on the high dive. “I don’t care if it’s the VMAs,” she muttered into her microphone before the song’s finale. “I’m not jumping off of there.”
So the night’s biggest splash was made by Beyoncé, who closed the show by writhing through a 15-minute medley that smashed her most recent self-titled album into dazzling shards — a disjointed mini-concert for the Vine generation.
When it was over, husband Jay Z and daughter Blue Ivy materialized to present Beyoncé with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award. Trading smiles and smooches, pop music’s first family looked happy up there.
Then fans flooded social media with breathless babble while detractors got ornery. But the Beyoncé binary doesn’t count as controversy, so see you next year.
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