In the days before the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, the drama for pop-cultural fanatics was endless.
Among the story lines: A boa constrictor bit one of Nicki Minaj’s dancers during rehearsals for the show, Iggy Azalea took a nasty spill during her performance at a VMA benefit concert and former Death Row honcho Suge Knight was one of three people shot at an unofficial pre-awards party thrown by Chris Brown.
Inside the Forum in Inglewood on Sunday, the audience buzz was mostly focused on what Beyoncé had planned and if anyone could top Miley Cyrus’ defining moment of irreverence at last year’s show -- a foam-finger-enhanced performance that kept us talking all year.
Here’s a few moments that stood out.
Best: Opening with a “Bang Bang”
Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj opened the show with a performance that had Grande emerge from a spaceship for her electro-stomper “Break Free,” Minaj twerking in a jungle for “Anaconda” and then the pair united with Jessie J for ladies anthem “Bang Bang.” It was the sort of over-the-top fun that award shows are made for – even if Minaj teetered on the edge of showing all her glory with a wardrobe malfunction.
Worst: Jay Pharoah's unofficial hosting gig
The show didn't have a proper host, but the “Saturday Night Live” star regularly popped-up to plug an award with extended monologues. No one can deny that he does spot-on impressions of Jay Z and Kanye West, but instead of any real riffing he opted for corny punch lines. It quickly became tedious, but maybe that’s because he stuck to the script on the TelePrompTer.
Best: Sam Smith bringing calm to the storm
At a show in which everyone tries to top everyone, there aren’t many moments of restraint. The breakout British soul singer was the first act to still the crowd with his exquisite, and simple, performance of “Stay With Me.”
Worst: The actual award winners
Sure, the actual awards are pretty secondary to onstage spectacle. But most of the winners didn’t make any real sense. Lorde taking rock video? Ed Sheeran besting Pharrell? Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” topping Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”? Odd.
Best: Common and Miley Cyrus get socially conscious/Worst: Audience reaction
The VMAs are rarely serious, but a few moments brought attention to matters bigger than carting out pop stars. Common addressed the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer shot and killed unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown. Common called for a moment of silence and then awarded the hip-hop video award to Drake (who was absent).
"Come on, don't get political," a guy shouted before he was told (in unprintable words) to shut up by another audience member.
Meanwhile, when Cyrus nabbed the video of the year honor for “Wrecking Ball” she sent a man who described himself as a former homeless youth to speak on her behalf. The parts of his speech that could be heard packed an emotional wallop. Yet the audience was shouting for Cyrus, who sat and wiped tears from her face, to go to the stage. The hollering mostly drowned his words out. As admirable as Cyrus’ intentions were, we’re certain show producers hoped she did something zanier considering they were highly promoting her return after last year’s infamous twerking.
Best: Beyoncé owning the show
Beyoncé has spent her career making award shows memorable with her onstage precision and knack for continuously upping her showmanship. As the recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, the pop diva closed the night with a 15-minute performance.
Using her blockbuster, self-titled visual album – which she dropped without warning late last year – as the source material, she moved through an ambitious medley that pulled from the entire project.
A seemingly unlimited supply of dancers joined the singer as she tore through the medley on a dazzling set that featured a video wall flashing bits of the album (and new footage), moving runways and tiered platforms.
She writhed on a chair to “Rocket,” swung from a pole during “Partition,” was joined by glitter-dipped dancers for “Drunk In Love,” showed her swagger on “Flawless,” and paid tribute to daughter Blue Ivy and husband Jay Z as they looked on and danced before joining her onstage in a loving embrace (which may or may not dispel divorce rumors).
It was a complex, marathon showcase unlike anything else the singer had done and she never missed a beat. By the end of it everything that happened onstage before felt meaningless.