They were perhaps the saddest words ever glimpsed on MTV: "Britney Spears returns to the VMA stage in 10 minutes."
Rendered as an on-screen caption in the wake of Beyoncé's epic throwdown on Sunday's Video Music Awards, the sentence wasn't supposed to trigger pity. After all, this year's edition of MTV's annual bash, broadcast live from New York's Madison Square Garden, had been breathlessly hyped in advance as a comeback for Spears, who after a long spell in the pop-culture wilderness (a.k.a. Las Vegas) appears to have her head in the game again.
And truth be told, the singer's performance of "Make Me…," from the very strong album she released Friday, was no tragedy: Wearing a sparkly yellow leotard, Spears danced with a fair amount of the feline energy that made her the original VMAs phenom back in the early 2000s. (As for her singing, well, let's just say she lip-synced the right words.)
But whoever allowed Spears to perform after Beyoncé must have had sabotage in mind, for nothing could've killed the anticipation for the former teen-pop queen — or made her old-fashioned display look less relevant — than Beyoncé's virtuosic medley of songs from her hit album "Lemonade."
Carefully choreographed and beautifully sung, the lengthy performance — which strung together bits of "Pray You Catch Me," "Hold Up," "Sorry," "Don't Hurt Yourself" and "Formation" — touched on police violence, romantic infidelity and motherly love as Beyoncé criss-crossed Madison Square Garden wearing a fur coat and wielding a baseball bat, glaring at the camera then breaking into her trademark million-watt grin.
As the centerpiece of what aims to be music's boldest awards show, it was just so much more striking — and topical — than what Spears and the other acts at the VMAs were offering, even if the performance was basically a live commercial for the singer's ongoing world tour. (Indeed, a real commercial aired in the next break, providing whatever motivation potential ticket-buyers still needed.)
Not that anyone else was really even trying to match Beyoncé's gravitas, save for Rihanna, who as the recipient of this year's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award sang four separate times, each a deft showcase for her varied talents. (Other big winners included Drake for hip-hop video with "Hotline Bling" and — what do you know! — Beyoncé for video of the year with "Formation.")
Rihanna was best in a busy version of "Work" that she performed amid a gaggle of dancers and hangers-on that gave the cavernous arena a humid club vibe. But she was strong too in a clutch of grown-up ballads.
Yet the rest of Sunday's show felt like little league compared with Beyoncé.
There was Ariana Grande warbling through "Side to Side" as part of an inane gym-themed routine that had her on both a stationary bike and a pommel horse. There was Nick Jonas singing his song "Bacon" as he careened around a New York diner, dodging servers with trays and guys doing cartwheels.
And there were the Chainsmokers, a forgettable duo of EDM bros, performing "Closer" as though they were shutting down the grimmest karaoke bar in the grimmest college town on Earth.
There was also Kanye West, who probably did in fact show up determined to be as serious as Beyoncé.
But West's characteristically off-the-cuff speech about his idolization of "artist-merchants" like Steve Jobs lacked the electricity he usually brings to occasions like this.
Next year: All Beyoncé, all the time?