Who booked all the amateur acts to open for Beyoncé?
Amateurs, anyway, is what Beyoncé made a room full of stars look like when she closed the MTV Video Music Awards, broadcast live Sunday night from the Forum in Inglewood. Onstage for nearly 20 minutes, the singer moved inexorably through an ambitious, complicated performance that touched on most of her self-titled album from last year. When it was over, her husband, Jay Z -- the guilty party in a never-ending stream of tabloid reports about the unraveling of their marriage -- brought their 2-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, to her, for a warm family hug. He brought a trophy, as well: the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, presented to Beyoncé in recognition of her impact on the form.
Finally, there was the name of an artist she might’ve recognized from her own league.
Would the production that preceded Beyoncé's mini-concert have seemed as lackluster without her to measure it against? It’s impossible to say. But there’s no denying that this year’s edition of the VMAs -- an awards show celebrated for its anything-goes factor -- felt decidedly tame, especially as compared with the 2013 edition, which climaxed with Miley Cyrus’ transformative twerk-a-thon.
Ariana Grande opened the show by emerging from a spaceship to sing her song “Break Free,” a thrilling stadium-rave jam with Cyrus-style lyrics about hard-won liberation. Here, though, Grande’s voice sounded tinny and small as she struck exaggerated poses that suggested someone dancing along to the VMAs at home rather than performing on the program itself.
Nicki Minaj enlivened the number when she took over to do “Anaconda,” her raunchy riff on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” But the song’s lyrics were so heavily edited for television that you were mostly impressed by Minaj’s ability to commit the changes to memory -- a sign of professionalism, for sure, but not exactly a revelation. The same went for the British singer Jessie J, who in joining Grande and Minaj to belt out the chorus of “Bang Bang” demonstrated why she continues to find work but hasn’t quite broken through on her own.
Another dogged striver, Rita Ora, turned up to sing the hook in “Black Widow,” her wan duet with the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. And speaking of Australia, 5 Seconds of Summer -- well, actually, let’s not speak of this Sydney-based pop-punk troupe at all, so dull and witless was its slog through the acoustic ballad “Amnesia.” (That no one forced these guys to do “She Looks So Perfect,” their lovably coarse summer hit, ranks as some kind of talent-management disaster.)
Taylor Swift, characteristically, was smarter in using the highly watched VMAs to promote “Shake It Off,” the self-conscious pop-crossover single she released just last week. But though her performance was a slick and knowing ode to Madonna’s iconic “Material Girl” video, it felt indistinct in a way that Swift’s notional country songs rarely do; it could easily have come from another artist, something this master diarist rarely allows us to say.
Several acts made deeper impacts. Sam Smith was a model of centered intensity as he looked directly into the camera during “Stay With Me,” his beseeching torch song. Katy Perry lived up to her pop-savvy reputation by wearing a floor-length denim gown modeled after one Britney Spears wore to the American Music Awards in 2001. (Perry’s date, the absurdist rapper Riff Raff, wore a denim suit in his role as Spears’ ex, Justin Timberlake.)
And after announcing last week to much fanfare that she’d appear again on the VMAs, Cyrus brilliantly upended expectations by sending a young homeless man to accept her award for video of the year. As the man exhorted the entertainment industry to address the homeless situation in the United States, Cyrus looked on in apparent tears, an enfant terrible turned grown-up bleeding heart.
Yet even that surprising move had only a fraction of the gravitas that Beyoncé brought to her grand finale. A sort of rapid-fire digest of her portion of the shared stadium tour she’s on with Jay Z, the performance pulled from all manner of sounds and styles, juxtaposing harsh electronic beats and rubbery neo-soul bass, staccato hip-hop rhythms and sweeping vocal melodies. It had dancing that was equally expansive, with severe head-snapping choreography giving way to the singer’s writhing on a pole. And then there was Beyoncé's bedazzled leotard, a costume at once flashier and more refined than anybody else’s on Sunday.
The show business was, as one of her songs put it, flawless. But what really set her apart was the lifelike range of feeling she was using all that technique to put across. A lover’s sexual hunger, a mother’s tender devotion, a feminist’s impatience with small minds -- Beyoncé embodied them all in a way that made the rest of the VMAs feel brittle and one-dimensional.
“I’m so full,” she said as she embraced her family and soaked in the crowd’s adulation. You can add self-knowledge to her list of attributes.