Were the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, which aired live Sunday night from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the whitest VMAs in history -- or the blackest? The youngest or the oldest? The most exciting or the most embarrassing?
Sure, you bet -- all of the above.
The 30th edition of an annual production now (like MTV itself) only nominally about music videos, the VMAs this year kept rocketing between extremes, pushing buttons seemingly designed to stoke social-media buzz then retreating into the safety of assured showbiz professionalism.
The show opened with Lady Gaga, who sang her new single “Applause” while quickly cycling through a succession of outfits and hairstyles, beginning with one get-up that suggested a cross between the Flying Nun and SpongeBob SquarePants and concluding with a seashell thong bikini and what looked like long blond extensions. (Perhaps she felt compelled to go racy as a means of offsetting the use of “Applause” in a goofy Kia commercial that aired at least twice during the show’s broadcast.)
But Lady Gaga was just one of several pop superstars on hand Sunday.
A little more than two hours after the show began, Katy Perry wrapped up the proceedings with a vivid performance of her just-released “Roar” -- which pundits have pitted against “Applause” in a kind of heavyweight diva duel -- from inside a boxing ring stationed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
Taylor Swift and One Direction were present, too, picking up awards and providing the kind of unmediated reaction shots that bloggers use to create instant-classic GIFs. (Worth seeking out is Swift’s apparently explicit brush-off of One Direction’s Harry Styles, with whom she’s been romantically connected.)
And there was, of course, Justin Timberlake, who won the so-called Video Vanguard award as well as the prize for video of the year, for his song “Mirrors,” which he described as a tribute to his grandparents.
Those honors came with a perk: 20 minutes or so of the show’s run time to do with as Timberlake pleased. Providing what may have been a preview of his upcoming arena tour, the singer touched on practically all of his solo hits -- “Cry Me a River,” “Like I Love You,” “SexyBack,” “Suit & Tie” -- and reunited (for about 15 seconds) with his old mates in the boy band ‘N Sync.
In a backstage shot of the group after its appearance, you could practically see the gratitude radiating off every guy not named Justin.
As always with Timberlake, the mini-concert was slickly impressive. (“I still run this bitch!” he crowed at one point.) Yet it also felt interminable and a bit musty, especially as compared with Bruno Mars’ rendition later in the show of his song “Gorilla,” which found Mars exercising some of the same old-school razzle-dazzle but with far more intensity and sexual energy.
Still, even Mars looked like a wallflower relative to to Miley Cyrus, who scandalized the audience at the Barclays Center with an aggressively lewd, thrillingly garish performance that found her cavorting first with a number of giant bears and then, perhaps even more bizarrely, with Robin Thicke in his smash hit “Blurred Lines.” (The evening’s funniest viral image reportedly depicted the reaction of Will Smith and his family to Cyrus’ performance, though some Internet fact-checkers claimed that the Smiths’ horrified expressions were actually captured during Lady Gaga’s appearance. Either way, they’re priceless.)
Twerking just as hard as a former Disney star can, Cyrus wasn’t the only white artist to borrow from other cultures on the VMAs.
As the night’s appointed R&B stars, Timberlake and Thicke pulled off soul-man moves inherited from Al Green and Marvin Gaye.
And the Seattle-based hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won awards including the one for hip-hop video, a category in which they inexplicably beat out Drake, Kendrick Lamar and ASAP Rocky. Introducing their corny if well-intentioned performance of the gay-rights anthem “Same Love” (for which Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were joined Sunday by Jennifer Hudson), ASAP Rocky said, with what seemed like a touch of regret, “White boy can spit.”
True or not, Macklemore’s rapping paled in comparison to that of Kanye West, who tore through his song “Blood on the Leaves” in front of a stark image of a tree he said later on his website was “used for lynching.” And Drake, not unlike Perry, was calmly ferocious in “Started from the Bottom,” summoning a low-key swagger that the VMAs, for all their digital-age bluster, seemed weirdly short on.
Clowns to the left of him, jokers (and oldsters) to the right, Drake found a spot in the middle, and he made it his own.