At most award shows, the tension is typically reserved for the envelope moments — Who will win? Who will lose? — but at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday the drama was bottled up in two questions: What would she wear? What would he say?
The “he,” of course, was Kanye West, the petulant, tweeting prince of hip-hop culture, and the “she” was Lady Gaga, the plasticized fashion plate of pop who has taken Madonna’s costume art one step further with something close to wardrobe architecture. When Gaga first hit the stage Sunday (to accept a trophy for best video by a female artist for “Bad Romance”), everyone at the Nokia Theatre leaned forward to see her costume, which looked like a fossil-era zoological exhibit with a feathered headpiece. When West finally walked into the spotlight, at the end of the show, much of America presumably leaned back and waited for his latest ingot of hot topic.
Amid a surprising cascade of boos, the Chicago native didn’t ask for forgiveness. Clad in red, he sauntered to center stage to “toast” his critics (not the word he used, by any means) and, by the end of the new number, if there were any catcalls they were inaudible amid the ovation and the cheers of “Kanye, Kanye!”
Pop music is in a strange jumbled state these days and, with the recording industry and MTV searching for brands amid the digital-age fiscal rubble, the scene is something akin to a supermarket aisle after an earthquake. On Sunday there was almost a quaint (or nervous) look to the past when things made sense.
In the venue, the proceedings opened with a thunderous Led Zeppelin song and Eminem’s opening performance, with simple black hoodie and raw street ethos, felt like a return to “Eight Mile” or even LL Cool J’s brawny, old-school simplicity. More than that, when Usher lighted up the place with a moonwalking number, it reminded everyone that in many ways the Victory Tour of Michael Jackson is still on the road in contemporary culture. Linkin Park, the only real representative of the guitar nation, seemed out of place in the live national broadcast, and appropriately, its performance was beamed in from Griffith Observatory, as if it were a way station from some alien galaxy.
Eminem, the class clown of a decade ago, came off as the world-weary elder statesman on this night, not that he hung around long. A private plane awaited to whisk him to New York for a Yankee Stadium tour date, and his quick exit was a reminder that this is an award gala where the trophies don’t matter. He won two — well, someone can FedEx them to him later. Gaga led the field on the night by winning eight awards.
The host, Chelsea Handler, the author and late-night talk-show host, had plenty of verve and vinegar. She is known for ribald audacity and an unflinching candor about her own escapades. Handler was a game presence all night, hopping into a hot tub with the cast of “Jersey Shore” (and emerging with a fake pregnancy belly), trading rehab gags with Lindsay Lohan and talking smack about Mel Gibson, young Justin Bieber (winner of the best new artist award) and, of course, West.
Early in the show, Handler demonstrated a kick-to-the-groin defense for any award winner who had a speech interrupted. It was a reference to West’s crass stage invasion last year when he interrupted the acceptance speech by young country music star Taylor Swift. That moment led to a major cultural echo — even President Obama weighed in with a ripe description of the behavior — but MTV was delighted to have the plot element last year and this year this as well.
The sweet-faced country star used the opportunity to premiere a song, using part of her speech last year as the intro to the song that seemed informed by the sonic Southern style of Dixie Chicks, although the lyrics seemed to be looking West. “Thirty-two and still growing up, who you are is not what you did, you’re still an innocent.”
Gaga, meanwhile, made so many costume changes she actually conjured up the ghost of Cher — oh, wait, that really was Cher, who noted that she was around when the newcomer was “Baby Gaga.”
For her last stage appearance, Gaga appeared to be wearing a meat-slab dress.
Earlier in the show, she admitted that she had put a lot of thought into her wardrobe but not so much in the winning of awards.
“I didn’t quite think through all the wins,” she said explaining why she had a team of wardrobe-assistance people help her reach the trophy up onstage.