After a weekend spent battening down the hatches and stocking the pantry with nonperishable goods, it was nice to be reminded that some things will always remain blessedly consistent, even in the face of natural disasters. Tonight, MTV aired the Video Music Awards, an annual event designed to make people over 16 feel very, very old.
In its 27-year history, the VMAs have seen plenty of outrageous moments, both of the manufactured and spontaneous varieties. Tonight, the biggest bombshell dropped before the ceremony even began: In news that shook the pop world—and surely sent Willow Smith screaming to her agents in fear—Beyoncé announced, with a perfectly posed “black carpet” shot, that she and Jay-Z are expecting their first child. No doubt inspired by her happy news, Beyoncé later gave a joyful, rafter-raising performance of her song “Love on Top,” which was easily the best moment of the entire telecast. I do hope that sequined-blazer-and-tuxedo-shirt combo is a preview look from the House of Dereon maternity line.
Last year, Lady Gaga stirred up controversy (feel free to apply air quotes as you see fit) by showing up to the VMAs in a dress made out of meat. Tonight, she opened the ceremony by delivering a monologue as her male alter ego, Jo Calderone. In a manner familiar to any old speech and debate nerds who may have been watching, Calderone offered an intense disquisition on the kaleidoscopic nature of truth and identity in popular performance. Of Gaga, Calderone said:
When she comes, it's like she covers her face because she doesn't want me to see, like she can't stand to have one honest moment where nobody's watching! I want her to be real. But she says Jo, I'm not real, I'm theater. And you and I, this is just rehearsal.
Then, still as Calderone, Gaga performed her latest single, “Yoü and I,” throwing a bone to the over-16s in the crowd by bringing on Queen's Brian May to reprise his guitar solo from the album.
Gaga’s evening-long commitment to never breaking character was quite admirable. Watching the twitchy way Calderone stared at Britney Spears when presenting her with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award—in an unsubtle homage to Brit's infamous buss with Madonna at the 2003 VMAs—was one of the more weirder and more enjoyable bits of an otherwise long, dry, evening.
Other big moments included Jay-Z and Kanye West performing their single“Otis,” with its infectious “Try a Little Tenderness” sample; Adele doing a faultlessly classy version of "Someone Like You," and Chris Brown continuing to pretend like nothing ever happened with Rihanna by performing a mash-up of his songs “Yeah 3X” and “Beautiful People” with Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Twitter was not ready to forget, despite Brown’s distracting high-wire work.)
Toward the end of the night, Russell Brand expanded on the touching tribute he wrote to Amy Winehouse on his blog with a heartfelt eulogy to her and her talent: Her voice was like “a roar from the guts of humanity,” he said. Tony Bennett then appeared to offer kind words, as well a preview of his “Body and Soul” recording with Winehouse from his upcoming duets album. Sadly, the actual tribute performance—Bruno Mars singing “Valerie,” the Zutons song Winehouse made famous—was a tepid affair, its gravity somewhat undercut by an inopportune cutaway to Katy Perry and her Lego hat.
Finally, MTV wants you to know that this woman is a celebrity. As the night’s “house artist”—essentially, the evening’s Paul Shaffer—British singer-songwriter Jessie J sang the audience in and out of commercials, therefore appearing on our screens approximately 3,000 times over the course of the evening. Expect to see more of her in the coming year. As we learned this weekend: Forewarned is forearmed.