MTV Video Music Awards: When to watch and what to watch for

Frank Ocean will perform at the MTV VMAs tonight.
(Vegard Grott / AFP / Getty Images)

The go-to-place for music videos MTV is not. Yet the MTV Video Music Awards tonight are not about videos. This is a show about a promotion, a 120-minute teaser trailer for the fall’s big albums, with appearances by Alicia Keys, Green Day and Taylor Swift, among others, here to sell.

And make no mistake, MTV remains brilliant at generating headlines for nonstories. As the destination for music videos has shifted to the Web -- the word “Video” remains in the “Video Music Awards” title more for tradition than anything having to do with the telecast -- the network has honed its craft at the fine art of promotion.

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Witness this week, when news outlet after news outlet has published stories stating that MTV had moved the VMAs to 8 p.m. from its more typical 9 p.m. time slot so as to avoid running at the same time as a speech by President Obama at the Democratic National Convention. Most stories even contained a statement from an MTV spokesperson.

One problem: MTV has been touting 8 p.m. as the start time for this year’s VMAs since May. The DNC may have indeed been on the minds of MTV execs, but the show’s start time was never shifted to avoid the political coverage; it was explicitly scheduled at 8 p.m. because of it.

Besides, saying the telecast is running an hour earlier is unfair, anyway, as it’s become impossible to discern MTV’s pre-coverage, what with its celebrity antics and musical performances, from the actual show. Nevertheless, the stories have tied MTV with politics and have allowed the network to regain its position as an influencer of the youth vote, at least in the minds of the media, as MTV can pat itself on the back for avoiding the president’s speech.

On the West Coast, the point is moot regardless. The Democratic convention is aired live and the VMAs are broadcast on a tape-delay, so anyone wishing to see the president’s speech will be able to watch it before the VMAs even start at 8 p.m. Those with political interests will have to skip the VMA pre-show, which features Demi Lovato performing outside Staples Center and is set to start at 7 p.m.

Pop & Hiss will be covering the extravaganza this evening. Look for a post on the show’s opening musical numbers to go live shortly after the MTV VMAs begin at 8 p.m. Eastern time. The proceedings, held at Staples Center downtown, are tape-delayed for the West Coast, so Pop & Hiss will begin posting a little after 5 p.m. -- as fast as this writer can write (a safe estimate would be 5:30 p.m.).

Regardless of the time zone, here are some burning music questions heading into the MTV VMAs:


Can Green Day begin to justify why the band is releasing three albums this fall and winter?

Early singles “Oh Love” and “Kill the DJ” don’t exactly inspire confidence that Green Day’s trio of albums -- “¡Uno!” arrives Sept. 25, while “¡Dos!” arrives Nov. 13 and “¡Tré!” will round out the threesome on Jan. 15 -- will be filler-free. “Oh Love” recalls the tepid Green Day of 2000’s “Warning,” when the band seemed to settle for mid-tempo pop and suddenly showed signs of actual boredom, a topic the band once sang about with passion.

“Kill the DJ” packed a little more fire and saw Green Day ripping off its punk heroes the Clash, but the message, if there is one, is diluted by repetitive lyrics that place the emphasis on the chorus rather than song craft. The rock band will be inescapable in coming months, even scoring its own “Angry Birds” game, but the band has yet to offer any hint that its new albums have the ambition of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown.”

Where’s the excitement for Pink?

Her latest single, “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” is a slick little pop-rocker number, falling between Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” and Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together” in this year of musical kiss-offs from female pop stars. The song tries to walk the line between bubblegum and tough, and laces its cherry beats with a bevy of curse words.

Yet after debuting high on the pop charts in July, “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” has fallen off, and heading into the VMAs, most of the talk is surrounding Pink’s high-risk stunts. She’s shown off her acrobatic skills at previous award shows (see “Sober” at the 2009 VMAs or “Glitter in the Air” at the 2010 Grammys), and no doubt she’ll feel the need to give fans something to talk about Friday morning. Pink, however, is the rare artist who can mix boldness with pop smarts, so here’s hoping it’s the song and not the stunt that wows.


Is this the moment for Frank Ocean to truly lift off?

Make no mistake, Ocean is a star. The adventurous R&B; artist, whose orchestrations are draped in elements of hip-hop and electronics, not to mention deep-thinker lyrics, is 2012’s most discussed newcomer. A solid performance tonight, however, and those who follow the ups-and-downs of award shows will note that Ocean has set himself up as the favorite for Grammys’ best new artist.

To date, his “Channel Orange” has sold 281,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and done so in just eight weeks. Some of Ocean’s live performance have been marred by the young star’s nerves, but expect Ocean to vault back into the top 10 next week, and to stay there for weeks to come. After the VMAs, Ocean will be the musical performance on the season opener of “Saturday Night Live” next week. If there’s a question hanging over this performance, it’s simply how much Ocean will try to sieze the moment. His songs are murky, understated, and he’s best when his vocals are up front, yet the VMAs aren’t exactly known for delicate.

Should Taylor Swift have been a pop rocker from Day 1?

Let’s face it, when it comes to country music, Swift wears the sounds of Nashville like glitter. Her current hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” is a shout-along Top 40 rocker, without so much as a cursory nod to the genre for which she’s known.

It’s sold more than 1 million downloads and is a runaway late-summer hit. It’s a little awkward and goofy, coming complete with spoken-word asides, but the crowd singalongs in the chorus ultimately win out. She’s an artist whose award show performances have been shaky at best, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a song that plays to her thin voice, putting attitude ahead of craft. Will it result in a more confident Swift this evening? Most likely, but whether it foretells a full album that leaves Nashville behind remains to be seen.


Will Alicia Keys effectively sell her new single?

She’s already teased multiple versions of the title track to her Nov. 27 album, “Girl on Fire,” and Keys is used to performing new songs on the VMA stage. Back in 2007, for instance, she unveiled “No One” on the MTV show.

“Girl on Fire,” which is expected to be the song Keys performs tonight, follows a similar mode. It’s a big-beat belter with rousing piano notes -- the kind that can be played with one hand on the piano and the other firmly in the air. By now, this is the Keys formula, and she doesn’t expect to be switching it up tonight. One of the remixes features rapper Nicki Minaj, and a guest appearance shouldn’t be ruled out, although such a tactic would render Keys a guest on her own track.


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