Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards at Barclays Center in Brooklyn featured performances by Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Katy Perry and other performers:

Lady Gaga, dressed in a cartoon-yellow, Marilyn Monroe wig and a black leotard (which she stripped off quickly to reveal a bra and underwear), performed “Applause” surrounded by dancing mimes. It was a shaky, uneventful performance for the usually assured, button-pushing Gaga.

Then, within minutes, Miley Cyrus and a team of dancing furries performed a crotch-grabbing, occasionally bleeped, try-hard version of “We Can’t Stop” — which morphed into a Robin Thicke-accompanied “Blurred Lines” and ended with Cyrus, now dressed as a “Truth or Dare”-era Madonna licking Thicke’s neck. It was every bit as awkward as it sounds.

In one of the night’s best performances, Kanye West and his Vocoder — both in full, I Am A Serious Artist That Is Why I Look So Depressed mode — performed “Blood on the Leaves” on a mostly darkened stage. His number was stark and utterly unornamented — the exact opposite of Cyrus’s messy, purposeless spectacle.

Allison Stewart

Cyrus’s routine was the one that spawned the most chatter following the show. Alexandra Petri speculates on what the singer’s performance might have meant:

Viewers are still reeling. There were teddy bears, and The Artist Formerly Known As Hannah Montana was gyrating with them, and then Robin Thicke came out and she somehow obtained a large foam hand and — why? Just, why? Among possible explanations for the performance:

Cyclops Teddy Bear sees into the heart of light, the silence. Cyclops Teddy Bear comprehends that the universe is vast, dark and largely indifferent to human suffering. Suns and civilizations swim into existence and then vanish into dust. Out of the despair of Cyclops Teddy Bear is born a nihilistic sprite who transforms this existential disappointment into dance and also crotch-grabs a lot.

Alexandra Petri

Clinton Yates, however, argues that widespread criticism of Cyrus for her sexually suggestive dance is misguided:

While Cyrus was condemned for grinding on Thicke, very little criticism has been laid on the singer himself for his role in the performance. The nastiest of the comments have implied that Cyrus is somehow diseased because of her preferred dance methods.

Add to this the fact that some people feel she is appropriating a certain amount of black culture without proper license and you’ve got a cauldron of ignorance and discrimination that even in 2013 is widely regarded as understandable, if not sensible. It is not.

When the white, 20-year-old, former child star and daughter of a country singer goes on stage and does something that the so-called ruling classes deem unseemly, it starts a firestorm. When scores of young women across the globe take the stage to express themselves in exactly the same way at an EDM concert by Diplo, and plaster their exploits all over social networks, no one bats an eye.

By implying that Cyrus is somehow creating a minstrel act of sorts by including black dancers in her act, you are implying that there is something lesser than about such an act. As if it’s completely impossible that she simply enjoys and respects the talents of those she chooses to work with. In short, it is inherently racist to imply that there is anything wrong with anyone other than black women twerking.

Clinton Yates

Justin Timberlake and the other members of ’N Sync also sang together at the ceremony in a reunion that many fans had been anticipating:

After days of rumors and playful teasing from MTV, the members of the ’90s boy band reunited on stage Sunday at the 2013 VMAs. The group performed snippets of its song “Girlfriend” before launching into a performance of “Bye Bye Bye,” as the audience — Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga among them — danced along.

Since going on hiatus in 2002, ’N Sync members have remained in the spotlight with various gigs and appearances. Both Lance Bass and Joey Fatone appeared on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” while Chris Kirkpatrick competed on CMT’s “Gone Country.” In addition to releasing a solo album, JC Chasez appeared as a judge on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.”

Timberlake has easily been the most successful of the group. He’s released three chart-topping solo albums since the group disbanded and broken through in Hollywood with roles in blockbusters such as “The Social Network.” Sunday night he was honored with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, previously given to the likes of Britney Spears, George Michael and LL Cool J.

Bethonie Butler

For everything you might have missed while watching the ceremony, including Macklemore’s mongoose stole, continue reading here.