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Under that helmet, he’s crying
Given that ratings for the VMAs have been sliding drastically for the past few years, MTV is probably right to worry about the prospects for this year’s show. But this year’s insane barrage of publicity stunts and hastily conceived viral-video schemes reeks of panic and desperation. Instead of hosting a whole bunch of full-song live performances in an actual theater, this year’s show has a few big stars playing all night in a couple of pimped-out Las Vegas hotel suites, which means we get thirty-second clips of a bunch of different songs rather than any actual performances. I guess the idea is that we can go online to watch the full performances, but I’m not going to get on the internet to watch the Foo Fighters in a hotel room. I’m just not. Instead of overhauling the presentation, MTV might be able to slow its decline by actually working to put on a good, unpredictable show. Instead, we get an unwatchably chopped-up and disjointed night of entertainment with barely any single segment inching past the one-minute mark. Given that spectacle was pretty much the only thing the VMAs ever had going for themselves in the first place, and given that it’s pretty hard to create a sense of spectacle in a fucking hotel room, there’s pretty much no reason to watch the thing at all this year. But I watched it anyway. You’re welcome.
Preshow highlights: Lil Mama is dressed like Little Bo Peep, which is a terrible, terrible idea on her part. Swizz Beatz and Eve are showing up together, though unfortunately they’re not pulling up on neon-colored Japanese motorcycles surrounded by angry shirtless dudes, which does not speak well of any impending Ruff Ryders comeback. The various hosts make sure to ask every single interviewee about Britney, and the assembled stars are very nice and diplomatic about the whole thing. John Norris has been doing these things for basically as long as I’ve been alive, and still he somehow manages to get sadder and creepier every single year. Pharrell was nice enough to bring Clipse and Kenna along with him, though they’re not allowed to do anything more than say their names into the microphone. Kanye has upped the goofiness factor once again, showing up in a tuxedo-jacket and a bow-tie with jeans and sneakers. Nicole Scherzinger’s preshow performance with Lil Wayne is deeply awkward and sort of funny. I want an hour of my life back.
9:01: The much-ballyhooed Britney comeback performance thankfully does not include Mindfreak Criss Angel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include a whole lot else either. Britney at least seems to be in decent shape, and she remembers all her dance steps, so there’s that. And “Gimme More” is a good song, a totally professional bit of futuristic studio-pop. But Britney’s somehow become a massive charisma-vacuum; her eyes look cold and dead, and she makes would-be pop-stardom look like work. In the audience, Rihanna openly laughs at Britney on-camera.
9:04: Adding to the disconnectedness of the whole night, there’s no host this year. Admittedly, Jack Black bombed last year and Diddy bombed the year before that, but this show needs a host, if only for continuity’s sake. Without one, it just looks like a bunch of stuff happening sequentially. We apparently still needed an opening monologue this year, so Sarah Silverman is out to do the honors. She kind of tanks, doing the fish-in-barrel thing by going after Britney hardcore and then kind of clamming up when she sees that people aren’t laughing.
9;10: Alicia Keys introduces the house band this year: Mark Ronson, apparently backed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. She also throws it to Pete Wentz and his non-working microphone. This show is already a trainwreck before the first commercial break; that’s got to be a new record.
9:12: Nicole Scherzinger is presenting an award and looking really, really Amy Winehouse-esque. This year, instead of just playing video-clips during the nominee-announcements, we see like sixteen different video-clips at once; it’s the most hectic split-screen I’ve ever seen. The presenters also have about fifteen different kinds of ADD computer-graphics and flashing lights going off behind them; I feel like I’m going to develop epilepsy watching this thing. Rihanna wins Monster Single of the Year, an award that apparently has nothing to do with videos.
9:15: We get a quick little glimpse of Kanye’s party, where everyone is wearing those goofy novelty-glasses. It looks like fun! It’s not particularly fun to watch on TV!
9:21: Akon gets thirty seconds to sing “Smack That” with Mark Ronson’s Royal Crown Revue behind him. This show makes no sense.
9:24: The new Quadruple-Threat Award I guess honors people who do more than just sing or rap, but why? Who gives a shit whether these people have clothing lines? Also: Kanye’s an activist? Justin Timberlake wins and drunkenly screams that MTV needs to play more videos.
9:25: During their clipped in-suite performance, Fall Out Boy rip a bunch of stuff off their walls and throw it at each other. Uh, punk rock!
9:32: The Foo Fighters: Still rote and workmanlike after all these years. Why are they even here? And why have a cellist onstage if she’s just going to be completely inaudible and unnecessary?
9:30: Kanye and 50 come out to present an award together, doing the Rolling Stone cover-pose on the way out. It’s another new award: Earthshaking Collaboration or something. I’d completely forgotten about that Green Day/U2 thing. Beyonce and Shakira win it for the best of the nominated songs. Shakira’s not there, and Beyonce looks predictably hot.
9:36: The new extra-scuzz Maroon 5 do the Mark Ronson/Cherry Poppin’ Daddies thing, looking slightly less awkward than Akon. The difference between these performance-clips and actual performances is the same thing as the difference between thirty-second iTunes song-clips and actual songs; it’s just maddening, even when I don’t particularly like the songs in question.
9:41: T.I. is up in Justin Timberlake’s hotel suite, rapping like a man possessed, so of course the camera lets him finish like half a verse before cutting away.
9:43: Chris Brown, on the other hand, gets to do a whole big-room performance, which starts out with a disturbingly creepy Charlie Chaplin robot-man dance. This kid has a really unappealing drama-nerd streak to him, and it’s becoming more apparent all the time. He can be a lot of fun to watch when he’s just dancing and lip-syncing, like the part of the performance where he and his backup dancers jump between stage-risers like they’re lily-pads, but when he gets all high-concept with it he’s unbearable. This somehow transitions into Rihanna singing “Umbrella” in front of an optical-illusion checkerboard background. There’s a poignant shot of Ashanti in the crowd singing along. Just think: five years ago, Ashanti was Rihanna. Now it’s back to Chris Brown, doing a Michael Jackson impression and bringing out his adorable krumping eight-year-olds. This is somehow just as disjointed as the hotel-suite performance-clips.
9:49: Someone, possibly Rhymefest, raps over Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” as we go to commercial. Just watch: within a year, rap is going to become a Cousin Cole remix of itself.
9:54: Soulja Boy performs in Kanye’s suite, much to the delight of both Kanye and Farnsworth Bentley, who hasn’t had this much opportunity to mug for the camera since 2004. I’ve actually been wondering how Soulja Boy does the Soulja Boy dance onstage, since it’s pretty much impossible to do while rapping into a mic. I thought maybe he’d wear a Janet Jackson headset-mic or something, but no, turns out he doesn’t do the dance at all. Boo.
9:54: For the second time tonight, Seth Rogen and that other guy from Superbad present the Best New Artist nominees; apparently this award has supplanted the Viewer’s Choice Award as the thing that people vote for. For the second time, Rogen and Other Guy talk about how we should vote for people other than the people we hate. I loved Knocked Up and all, but this bit wasn’t funny the first time, it isn’t funny this time, and it won’t be funny the next time they inevitably do it.
9:57: Justin Timberlake wins Male Artist of the Year. He and Timbaland share a moment, and JT says that Chris Brown makes him feel old. Chris Brown makes everyone feel old, JT. Timberlake does his trademarked humble acceptance speech, doing the obligatory shout-out to other nominees. He also reiterates his play-more-videos message, making fun of MTV’s constant reality-show rotation right in front of the award’s presenters: the chicks from The Hills, MTV’s biggest reality stars. I love how this is Justin’s big political cause.
10:00: I probably don’t need to tell you that it sounds like a fucking mess when Cee-Lo sings for the Foo Fighters, but I’ll just break the news here anyway.
10:04: It sure was nice of 50 Cent to cover for Justin when Justin was off accepting his award. 50’s lack of onstage chemistry with Timberlake and Timbaland is palpable. Everyone is out of breath.
10:06: Shia LaBoeuf’s new dirt-stache is just amazingly creepy. Fergie wins Female Artist, but she’s not there to pick it up, so LaBoeuf weirdly attempts to coax Ludacris to the stage to accept the award. Luda wisely abstains.
10:08: Pamela Anderson introduces Kanye for like the fifth time tonight. During her spiel, she has to keep interrupting herself to say, “Stop it, Tommy” a whole bunch of times, which is pretty funny. Up in his suite, Kanye manages to complete one entire song: “The Good Life,” with T-Pain. For what it’s worth, Kanye’s new stuff sounds really good when he’s lip-syncing to it in a neon-lit hotel-suite on TV. We get a beautiful helicopter shot of Kanye rapping out on his glass balcony, and it makes the whole hotel thing look like maybe not such a bad idea. That impression only lasts a few seconds, but credit Kanye with pulling this bullshit off at all.
10:17: An utterly bizarre spectacle: Lil Wayne throwing down with the Gym Class Heroes guy and the Panic! at the Disco guy in the Fall Out Boy suite. It’s official: Wayne will hang out with absolutely anyone at any time. He just doesn’t care. If 50 Cent asked him to record a verse for a “Part Time Lover” remix, he’d probably do it.
10:21: Timbaland (tonight’s maestro, whatever that means) is in some nightclub elsewhere in the casino idly toying with a huge bank of electronics and yelling like Lil Jon over this huge, awesome goth-rave track that turns out to be an introduction to Linkin Park’s performance of “Bleed It Out.” The moment that riff kicked in might’ve actually been my favorite of the night. “Bleed It Out” is a great song, a total minimal riff-barrage that rips shit up for two and a half minutes and then just ends. Nobody’s done atmospheric tantrum-rock this well since Nine Inch Nails, seriously, and hyper strobes and lasers are a good look for this band.
10:23: The dudes from Entourage, it seems, have basically become their characters. They Give Best Group to Fall Out Boy, and the camera zooms in on Gym Class Heroes guy looking devastated. Wayne is no longer in the suite, possibly because he has to go kick a verse in the Foo Fighters suite.
10:25: Wait, no, here’s the Foo Fighters suite and Wayne isn’t there. Instead, the Foos are covering the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia” with the guy from System of a Down, who does a really good Jello Biafra impression. You can’t say that the Foos aren’t making the most of this ridiculous set-up. I wonder how Jello’s going to feel when he finds out about this. Infuriatingly, the camera clicks off just before the chorus comes in.
10:31: Whoa, now Fall Out Boy is backing up Rihanna on “Shut Up and Drive,” which pretty much encapsulates the difference between the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy right there. (I should note, however, that “Holiday in Cambodia” is only a slightly better song than “Shut Up and Drive.”) Patrick Stump, it occurs to me, has basically the exact same kind of voice as Rihanna; too bad his backing vocals are all but inaudible.
10:33: I can’t quite understand why Alicia Keys is on this show, even though she’s at least trying, wearing enormous glittery fake eyelashes and trying hard not to look like someone’s hot mom. For some reason, she transitions from her pretty good new song into George Michael’s “Freedom 90,” a song recorded before Soulja Boy was born. Ne-Yo seems to like it a lot, anyway.
10:38: Up in the Kanye suite, Common is doing “Drivin’ Me Wild.” Lily Allen isn’t there, so Kanye sings the hook. Kanye should not sing hooks ever again.
10:43: Fall Out Boy back up the Gym Class Heroes on “Clothes Off,” and Ne-Yo inexplicably helps out on the chorus. I’m not quite sure what’s going on when Fall Out Boy are playing host to more rappers and R&B singers than Kanye is.
10:44: Jamie Foxx does his usual award-presenter bit, going off-script and making fun of people in the audience. He says something about Tommy Lee and Kid Rock fighting; I was wondering if that was going to happen. That’s one extra I’d watch online, anyway. Jennifer Garner looks perplexed with Foxx’s ad-libs. She also looks like she shouldn’t be allowed within fifty feet of another Forever 21 store ever again. They give Best New Artist to Gym Class Heroes (or, according to Garner, “Gym Class Fall Out.”)
10:47: Because none of his new songs apparently warrant camera-time, 50 does “In Da Club” in the Timberlake suite.
10:48: Miss Teen South Carolina shows up to make fun of herself, which isn’t something she does especially well. She manages not to fuck up while reading off a teleprompter, but her inflections are Shatner-level weird.
10:55: Robin Thicke is a pretty good fit with Mark Ronson’s Brian Setzer Orchestra.
10:56: While introducing surprise guest Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige calls 50 Cent “50 Cents,” just like my grandma! It’s nice to see that MTV managed to coax Dre out of his cave, but they pulled the same trick in 2002 with Guns N Roses, and Chinese Democracy still isn’t out; I guess we shouldn’t expect Detox before 2012. Dre, it should be noted, looks like the Incredible Hulk.
11:00: Diddy was apparently supposed to present something with Kid Rock, but I guess Kid got kicked out after the Tommy Lee fracas, so Yung Joc is up there instead. Yung Joc is not an adequate Kid Rock replacement.
11:01: Either I’ve passed through a vortex into an alternate reality or Mastodon is now onscreen, performing in the Foo Fighters room. That was both disorienting and awesome. The hotel-room audience looks confused.
11:05: Finally, we’re up to the last performance of the night, the big Timbaland victory-lap. First, Nelly Furtado sings “Do It” and looks extra-glassy. Then Tim comes out on an imitation Daft Punk stage doing “The Way I Are,” complete with hilarious D.O.E. verse. Then Timberlake comes out for the first verse of “LoveStoned” and dances a bunch. They tease “Give It to Me” but instead allow the show to mercifully end. I’d say there’s a legitimate chance that this year’s show will be the last VMAs ever.