The MTV Video Music Awards, held for the first time at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, started with a whimper, not a bang: 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. (Read one tweet: “Raise your hand if you’re feeling personally victimized after watching Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance.)

Video Vanguard Award recipient Justin Timberlake (whom Jimmy Fallon introduced, not inaccurately, as “The President of Pop”) hit every familiar note in his catalog of borrowed iconography -- a little Sinatra, a little Michael Jackson -- during a masterful greatest-hits medley that proved, not for the first time this evening, that simpler is often better.

His solo performance ended with the dramatic appearance of ‘N Sync (their performance was the show’s worst-kept “secret,” but everyone tried to look surprised). The reunited boy band performed briefly, but as equals. This wasn’t the VMA equivalent of Destiny’s Child at the Super Bowl, when the lesser members arrayed listlessly behind the most famous name – when Beyonce wouldn’t even let them use the wind machine.

During a brief, humble acceptance speech, Timberlake shared credit for the Video Vanguard award with his bandmates. “We can keep it at my house,” he offered, proof that awards shows really are like life.

After One Direction won the new “Song of the Summer Award” (”It means a lot to us,” said Harry Styles, acting as if it might actually not mean a lot to him), and there was a brief discussion of tolerance by A$AP Rocky (to scattered boos), Macklemore, Mary Lambert and Jennifer Hudson performed a TKO version of “Same Love.”

Austin Mahone won Artist to Watch and thanked God (which usually doesn't happen at the VMAs; during an earlier performance, the censors actually bleeped the "God" part of "goddamn"). There was a solid turn from Drake. Then came the evening's second most-buzzed about non-event: a possible reunion between Taylor Swift, who presented Best Male Video, and Kanye West, who was nominated. She read the nominees. A nation held its breath. Bruno Mars won. It was probably for the best.

After a surprise Video of the Year win for Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” (his only award of the night, out of six nominations), Katy Perry closed the show from a separate stage set up underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. She performing “Roar” in a mock boxing ring, in full fighter regalia, complete with a corner man and a spit bucket. It was gold-plated, of course.

The awards themselves, many of which were presented off-telecast, yielded few surprises.

Off-telecast winners included: Thirty Seconds to Mars’ “Up in the Air” (Best Rock Video) and Pink featuring Fun’s Nate Ruess for “Just Give Me a Reason” (Best Collaboration).

Among the winners on the telecast: Selena Gomez’s “Come and Get It” for Best Pop Video; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Can’t Hold Us” for Best Hip-Hop Video; One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” for Song of the Summer; and Taylor Swift, who won with “I Knew You Were Trouble” for Best Female Video as Daft Punk looked on impassively.

More on the VMAs:

VMA red carpet photos

Miley, Lady Gaga, ‘N Sync and more perform

2013 nominees