Kanye West, Eminem, Florence + the Machine, Taylor Swift and more: The MTV VMA performances graded

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Pop & Hiss is live -- sort of! We’re about 4 miles from MTV’s annual pat-on-the-back party, but we’re still grading all the performances as fast as we can, complete with typos. The two hours of hype will be documented here, but we also recommend you follow the tweets of our chief pop critic Ann Powers.

Eminem, ‘Not Afraid/Love the Way You Lie.’
The show begins with a close-up of Eminem, his face shrouded in a hoodie, all Dungeons & Dragons sorcerer-like. But there’s no 20-sided playfulness here, as Em is all solemn and serious -- stalking the stage face-down and plundering it with rhymes. ‘Not Afraid’ is an overly forced tale of overcoming addiction, but it’s stronger than anything off of last year’s ‘Relapse.’ It comes alive as Em struts from a brick-adorned back room to a stage that’s spread among a host of Googie-inspired symmetrics, allowing for some creative displays of light. Eminem has stolen some of Kanye West’s ‘Heartless’ drum line, and it gives the cut some award-show oomph, but doesn’t add to the song’s tenseness so much as explode it. The tautness comes courtesy of Rihanna, who appears onstage with a colorful, Hayley Williams-like hairdo. Her vocal delivery is straight-up stern, the perfect counterpoint to Em’s more forceful hits. Overall, a solid opening: B


Justin Bieber, ‘Baby.’ Remember a couple years ago when the Jonas Brothers performed outdoors at the MTV VMAs? This year it’s Bieber who’s the young’un who can’t play inside with the grown-ups. He rolls up to the downtown L.A. venue in a red convertible, chased by teenage girls. His ‘Baby’ is fluffy retro-teen pop, and the vintage car and screaming girls attempt to connect Bieber to idols of yore. But Bieber is no Beatle, and his ‘Baby’ is the kind of inescapable pop hit that already sounds dated, forever affixed to spring 2010. It’s a sugar high, and Bieber isn’t here to sing it so much as to show off his high-flying dance moves in his Team Bieber varsity jackets. But lest we think he’s completely void of musical talent, he makes a brief racket on the drum set, immediately after dancing with some tykes half his size. The giant ‘B’ on Beiber’s jacket tells us what squad he’s playing for, but this belongs to the Mickey Mouse Club: D

Usher, “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love/OMG.’ The R&B star is no doubt excited about the upcoming ‘Tron,’ as the star of this performance is the stark-and-smartly lighted retro-sci-fi stage. But perhaps here’s the reason his protegé in Bieber was confined to the street: Usher spins, slides and does his best to make folks of all sexual persuasions swoon, as he’s joined here by sparsely dressed female backups. It’s slick, and the light show distracts from the silliness of Usher singing and twirling to a song entitled ‘OMG.’ C+

Florence + the Machine, ‘Dog Days Are Over.’ Wonder -- did Universal Music Group make a bargain with MTV, allowing Eminem, perhaps, to appear only if the network agreed to showcase London-based upstarts Florence + the Machine? Doesn’t matter, as Florence Welch is a blazing and soulful wailer, and hers is the strongest performance of the night -- thus far. ‘Dog Days’ is a song that’s constructed from the ground up, beginning with coffee shop-friendly harpsichord notes and blasting into a shout-along chorus, then disintegrating and doing it all over again. Welch started on the floor, opening the cut with some delicate crooning. But by the time it was over, the fire-headed vocalist had the crowd on its feet, and no doubt had awoken plenty in America to her talents. No lip-syncing here -- just powerful, emotive rock ‘n’ roll singing. A

Taylor Swift, ‘Stealing Innocence’
(New song, and that’s the believed title.)Sparkly guitar? Gone. This is T-Swift all grown up. Her new ballad, which may or may not be about Kanye West, doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The performance begins with a clip of West interrupting Swift at last year’s VMAs. Look, West’s move was a boneheaded one, but it was also tragically overblown. Swift is no damsel -- she’s an international recording star who’s selling out arenas -- and if MTV can’t take its own awards seriously (see Chelsea Handler), why be shocked when the artists don’t? Regardless, Swift would have been better to ignore the moment at the 2010 edition. She also would have been better off not writing this song. ‘Lost your balance on a tightrope,’ she thinly sings (bet it sounds perfect on record), her somber eyes letting you know she understands, she really does. ‘Life is a tough road / 32 and still growing up,’ the suddenly mature Swift sings. For celeb watchers, West just turned 33. ‘You’re still an innocent,’ the 20-year-old Swift concludes in the chorus of this embarrassingly self-important ballad. So Swift can dispense advice and bestow forgiveness, but she still has a ways to go as an artist. D

Drake, ‘Fancy.’ Somewhat ignorable mid-tempo hip-hop, full of come-ons and clever pickup lines. It’s a step above honking the horn as one drives by a cute girl on the street, but not by much. Yet it’s largely inoffensive and pleasantly slight. C

B.o.B., Bruno Mars + Hayley Williams, ‘Nothin’ on You/Airplanes.’
I gave B.o.B.’s record a largely positive review earlier this year, but as I’ve spent a few more months with it, I’ve become less enamored. This B.o.B. medley didn’t go far to change my mind, but not all was his fault. It was too brief and it never let B.o.B. hit any sense of stride. Bruno Mars opened with the hook to the anthem ‘Nothin’ on You,’ and one wished we could have heard a bit more from him. B.o.B. raced through a verse, and was soon joined by Paramore’s Williams, who nails the hook in ‘Airplanes.’ Too bad it’s a song built around melancholic manipulation, but even the serious songs go down easy from B.o.B. Hayley then jumped to Paramore (Don’t worry -- she’s not going solo, kids!) to sing a verse-ish of cellphone-in-the-air rocker ‘The Only Exception.’ The song’s clunkiness was highlighted by the fact that MTV soon cut to European pop star Robyn, who was downright fierce in her brief turn at ‘Dancing on My Own.’ No one has rocked out harder this night. B.o.b.: B-. Paramore: C. Robyn: A.


Linkin Park, ‘The Catalyst.’ So this is the best thing to perhaps come from Linkin Park’s VMA appearance: Maybe some Angelenos will realize they haven’t yet visited the remodeled Griffith Observatory. ‘The Catalyst’ begins with a Foo Fighters-like chant, and then soon gets an industrial-light makeover, and then finally slows down for its oh-so-pained finale. More than a decade into its career, Linkin Park has the formula down pat, but the star here was Griffith Park and the colors reflected off the observatory. C

Kanye West, New Song. Kanye, welcome back. You have been missed. West, as we all know (it was the only storyline MTV had tonight) went into hiding after last year’s VMAs. But if he could reemerge after a few months off with a song like this, the man took a well-deserved break. This was the moment that made this commercial-masquerading-as-an-award-show worth it, as West’s new song split the difference between ‘808s’ and ‘Late Registration,’ opening with keyboard and synth sparseness, and building into a sing-along anthem for all the screw-ups, misguideds and everyone who’s made a mistake. West is a fascinating star, one who has never kept his emotions in check, and he continues to grow up and evolve before our eyes. What makes him important is that he has always done so with lyrics that are forthright and relatable, and laced with hooks that belong in stadiums and sounds that challenge artist and audience. Nothing about this new cut was musically obvious, opening with low-key earnestness and effortlessly moving into big-beat boldness Much of the chorus of this new song isn’t printable here, but West’s latest is a statement of defiance, imploring listeners to have a toast ‘for the scumbags,’ among many other mess-ups. It’s a song about celebrating the imperfections, and at the VMAs, it was kind of perfect. A+.

--Todd Martens

Images, from top: Kanye West (Getty Images); Florence + the Machine (Associated Press); Taylor Swift (Getty Images); Robyn (Associated Press).