The MTV Video Music Awards offer one of the few opportunities all year for people to pretend that MTV still matters — that it still mints such stars as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears instead of curiosities like Snooki and the Teen Moms.
Unlike, say, the Grammys, the VMAs do not exist as a nostalgia delivery system. The ceremony possesses a ruthless forward motion, one that usually doesn’t allow for honoring legacy acts, or even acts that were popular six months ago.
But on the occasion of its 30th birthday, the VMAs — held for the first time at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — indulged in a bit of pure nostalgia. ’N Sync, arguably one of the last groups that MTV steered to stardom, re-formed to honor member Justin Timberlake, the recipient of MTV’s vaunted Video Vanguard award.
The sense of longing — not just for ’N Sync, but also for MTV’s own long-ago relevance, which foundered around the time the channel relegated the actual playing of music videos to the graveyard shift — was palpable. The reunion with Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick, which came during a medley of Timberlake hits, was disappointingly brief and featured multiple cutaways to current boy-band superstars One Direction, who looked bored.
MTV can still demand fealty from pop’s biggest stars: The members of Daft Punk canceled a recent planned appearance — at which they would have stood around awkwardly on “The Colbert Report” — so they could instead stand around awkwardly onstage at the VMAs, saying nothing as Taylor Swift collected the award for Best Female Video for “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
There was also a head-scratchingly bad showing from a barely clad, crotch-grabbing Miley Cyrus and a team of dancing stuffed animals. Then there was an uncharacteristically underwhelming number from Lady Gaga — who stripped down to a shell bikini, like the really confused mermaid spawn of Marina Abramovic — and a team of leotard-wearing dancers who probably weren’t supposed to look like mimes.
The simplest performances turned out best: Kanye West’s bare-bones delivery of “Blood on the Leaves,” performed mostly in semi-darkness, was stunning. And Timberlake — save for about 60 seconds’ worth of ’N Sync and a grouping of backup dancers — moved and sang with few background effects. He was a wonder.
The awards themselves, many of which were presented off-telecast, yielded few surprises:
Timberlake, nominated for six awards, was shut out in every category except Video of the Year, which he won for “Mirrors” — although he did accept the “lifetime” Video Vanguard Award. And Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, also nominated for six awards, won two Moonman statuettes — for Best Hip-Hop Video (“Can’t Hold Us”) and Best Video With a Social Message (“Same Love”).
Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift won for Best Video in the male and female categories for, respectively, “Locked Out of Heaven” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and Austin Mahone (“What About Love”) took the Artist to Watch honor.
One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” won an award for Best Song of the Summer — a new category, voted on by fans — in a landslide.
With YouTube and Vevo as the go-to outlets for music videos these days, it’s a safe bet that many of the voters had never even seen that video, or quite possibly any video, played on MTV.