The 2011 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony went without a host or much sense of direction Sunday night at Nokia Theatre, as a heartfelt tribute to singer Amy Winehouse and a career-rehab performance from Chris Brown offered strong moments over the course of a wildly inconsistent evening.
In the salute to Winehouse, who died last month at 27, British comedian Russell Brand recalled first hearing her "raw, from-the-guts-of-humanity voice" in London before he knew who she was. "She suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. A lot of people just get the disease; not everyone gets the talent Amy was blessed with."
Brand then turned the segment over to Tony Bennett, who had recorded a duet in March with Winehouse for his forthcoming album. "She was so unbelievable," Bennett said. "Of all the young artists I've ever met in the last 20 years, she was a true jazz artist in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She had the gift. With real jazz, you can't just be a jazz singer; either you've got it or you haven't."
Video footage from their session on the pop classic "Body and Soul" segued into Bruno Mars' onstage rendition of her bouncy Motown-rooted song "Valerie" in one of the night's most exuberantly moving live performances.
R&B singer Brown scored another with his high-flying performance in which he and other performers were flown through the theater as he sampled his hit "Yeah 3X," Wu-Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Brown continues efforts to rebuild his career after becoming a virtual pop star non grata because of his attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009 on their way to the Grammy Awards.
Katy Perry's "Firework" was named overall video of the year, which she accepted sporting a yellow cube that appeared to be embedded in her head.
"Oh, my goodness, thank you so much," Perry said as she picked up her VMA Moonman statuette for the video that had logged more than 227 million views as of Sunday night. "I'm very proud of the song it stands for."
Perry and Adele videos won three each, making them the night's big winners. Besides overall video of the year for "Firework," Perry won for collaboration and special effects, both for "E.T." with Kanye West. Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" video collected awards in three so-called professional categories: art direction, cinematography and editing.
Lady Gaga had many of her peers and other onlookers slack-jawed with her opening performance-art appearance as her chain-smoking, expletive-spewing greaser alter-ego Jo Calderone, which she carried through the evening.
"Earlier tonight they told me I got best video with a message," Gaga-as-Calderone said when she accepted her second VMA for "Born This Way" in the female video category, after winning the newly added category of best video with a message. "There are so many great artists in this room.… Every video they've got has a … message."
The new category appeared to be an effort by MTV honchos to beef up the artistic credibility to the glitzy fashion- and celebrity-focused event.
On MTV's website, a note appeared under each of the six nominated videos to make sure the message of each wouldn't be missed: Eminem's video for "Love The Way You Lie" is about "the pain and peril of domestic violence"; "Firework," it said, "celebrates the spark and originality in all of us," etc.
But the video-with-a-message win for Gaga was announced midway into the pre-show telecast rather than highlighted during the formal ceremony, a move that seemed to imply that the rest of the evening would be dedicated to videos with no particular point.
West, however, managed to slip a socially conscious message into "All of the Lights," a nominee for hip-hop video. It's a anti-domestic violence drama that includes West's fervent plea about the daughter of a violence inclined couple: "Don't let her grow up in that ghetto university."
West's video, in fact, carries a stern message of its own: "WARNING: This video has been identified by Epilepsy Action to potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy."
"We are doing all we can to warn people who may be affected not to watch it," Epilepsy Action spokeswoman Aimee Gee said earlier. "We feel it is unfortunately very likely that people may have already been affected."
Show officials could have used a similar warning in advance of the opening segment with comedian-actor Kevin Hart, which may have induced disorientation for some viewers with its rotating stream of geometric shapes behind him.
Hart tempered his comments with mantra-like disclaimers that "I'm not hosting.... If I was the host, I woulda said it differently."
Then a string of category hosts slogged fitfully from segment to segment.
"It's essentially a music show," 'NSync's JC Chasez said on the red carpet heading into the theater, "so I don't know how many comedians we need telling jokes anyway. So it might be great to just get to your favorite artist, get to the music, get to the award. I'm curious to see how the pace works."
Perry had different pace issues on her mind as she entered the theater with a field-leading 10 nominations among this year's 15 categories, and she became the first artist to score nominations for four videos in the same year.
"It means all my work has been recognized by MTV and the people who are voting, which is really important," Perry said. "But I'm here to have a good time. I already had a shot of tequila at 12."
As Calderone, Gaga said that Gaga had told him, "I'm not real, I'm theater, and you and I — this is just rehearsal." Then she sat at a piano and started singing "You and I." for which she was joined by Queen guitarist Brian May.
She continued in character for her introduction of Britney Spears as this year's recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Spears also won the first VMA of the night, taking the pop video award for her post-apocalyptic "Till the World Ends."
"This award means so much to me, especially on the night before Michael Jackson's birthday," she said and then introduced Beyoncé, who had attendees buzzing with her baby bump, which she showed off during her carpet walk into the theater.
Her pregnancy was less visible under the purple sequined tuxedo jacket and black slacks she wore while singing "Love on Top," an R&B number from her new "4" album. But at the end of the song, she unbuttoned the jacket and rubbed her belly, as a backstage camera flashed on her husband, rapper Jay-Z.
The cable channel's reliance in recent years on reality shows and other nonmusic video programming took a hit when Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine tweeted that the VMA ceremony constitutes "one day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music."
Rapper Busta Rhymes picked up on the comment at the show, saying, "The truth is undisputed. It ain't what they used to be as far as supporting the music, you know what I'm sayin'? But at the end of the day, you still gotta come out and make sure that you are being acknowledged properly, especially when they're not acknowledging us properly any other time. So I salute Adam Levine from Maroon
5 for shedding a light on that."
Perry also brought up another moment from VMA past when she accepted, with West, the video collaboration award for "E.T."
"This is the time you want to interrupt me, Kanye," Perry said, her doe-eyed allusion to West's infamous interruption of Taylor Swift two years ago.
"I didn't write a thank-you speech," rapper Tyler, the Creator, leader of L.A. collective Odd Future, said after being named best new artist. "To all the kids that's watching" he offered advice, most of which was bleeped for expletives.
Amy Kaufman and Gerrick Kennedy contributed to this report.