At least the shocker this year was related to music.
The MTV Video Music Awards are always willfully chaotic, keeping alive the myth of pop as the provenance of rebels by placing a bunch of moderately edgy celebrities within a festive environment and fueling the mood with sexy performances, off-color jokes and “incidents” that are often staged, but good for a thousand Twitter tweets. One of these mostly bogus controversies usually goes a bit deeper, hinting at real issues of identity, status, personal power and self-expression -- the sticky stuff from which pop music is, in fact, made.
When Kanye West jumped up during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video Sunday night, put his hand over her microphone and declared that Beyonce’s losing “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” clip was “one of the best videos of all time,” he did a stupid thing. He seemed like a bully inexplicably targeting an honors student, and he further damaged his rather unstable reputation without managing to make his point clear.
A couple hours later, Beyonce received the Moonman trophy that MTV’s execs had designated for her -- every superstar gets one, apparently, in this predetermined coronation of pop’s latest prom court of ingenues and enduring hotties. Ever the lady, she ceded her thank-you time to Swift, who emerged seemingly quite prepared for the moment and gave a totally inconsequential speech. (She was really grateful to her video director and her fans.) It was a nice gesture of female solidarity in the face of West’s boorish and, yes, macho move.
But let’s consider what might have motivated West’s outburst. Swift was the bestselling artist of 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan. She’s transcended her base in country music to become a top 40 juggernaut and, arguably, the current face of young female America. Beyonce is a slightly older superstar who’s also topped plenty of sales lists; like Swift, she makes chart-toppers strongly rooted in a specific genre that appeal to a wider audience. Her home base is R&B;, and, through her marriage to Jay-Z and her brilliant singing style, she’s strongly connected to hip-hop.
Perhaps West, who later apologized, felt that Swift’s little love story mirroring the current plot of the new prime-time hit “Glee” genuinely wasn’t as deserving as Beyonce’s Bob Fosse-inspired volcanic eruption of a dance routine, which has inspired thousands of tributes by fans, including Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama. Maybe he was miffed that this young black pop queen’s heels were being nipped at by a blond Ivory Girl whose fans tend to look quite a bit like her.
Is that reading too much into the situation? It’s been a banner week for widely broadcast outbursts, from Congressman Joe Wilson hectoring Obama during his healthcare speech to Serena Williams seriously losing her cool at the U.S. Open to this latest kerfuffle, and in every case, racial conflict has been an undercurrent. Beyonce and Swift, quick to join hands and squelch any rumors of a feud, stood up for pop as a crossover art in which artists of all kinds can celebrate each other, but the tensions hinted at in this silly conflict are real, and relevant within America right now.
In contrast, the predetermined Big Stories at the VMAs felt fairly anticlimactic. Madonna’s clearly heartfelt opening eulogy for Michael Jackson will surely become a new highlight on her reel, but it didn’t take the public conversation about him anywhere new -- critical and public reactions to his passing have already redeemed him as a genius and a pop king. His sister Janet’s appearance during a video-centric dance tribute fascinated; mimicking her lost sibling’s dance moves as he performed them in the “Scream” video, she openly presented herself as his spiritual twin, the one who tried to carry on his work when his life made it impossible for him to do so. In the end, though, it was simply dazzling choreography, more ritual than spontaneous.
Besides, though the trailer for “This Is It,” the upcoming film being crafted from footage of Jackson’s final rehearsals, was promising, even the ghost of the greatest dancer video has ever known had some strong competition from Lady Gaga, whose series of wildly arty costumes (her final one seemed crafted on a paper shredder) and bloody cool re-enactment of her “Paparazzi” video, were the night’s artistic highlights. She made me long for the days when performance, not celebrity feuding and staged makeups, generated the most excitement on the VMAs.
Green Day and Jay-Z also raised some heat with music instead of patter; the veteran punk band pulled the old trick of crowd-surfing during its live number, and the rap “mayor,” as emcee Russell Brand called him, dueted with Alicia Keys in a display of utter confidence and skill. And Pink, who’s become quite gifted at acrobatics after a couple of years of using them on tours, impressed by hitting all her notes while dangling from a trapeze.
Finally, there was Beyonce, re-enacting that “Single Ladies” clip with extra dancers and a determination in every hip shake. Her classic showbiz bravado and remarkable physical skill would have won any referee’s call, compared to Swift’s sweet, boisterous but occasionally off-tune rendition of her award-winning “You Belong With Me,” staged in a New York City subway car.
But this is pop, after all, and MTV at that. In heavy rotation, everyone’s a winner. Except Kanye West, who Sunday night should have known better than to think that the hierarchies presented at this “awards” show are any more stable than Lady Gaga’s crazy hats.