Photo Credit: MTV/Getty Images
Those acutely aware of music history will remember that in 1984, the fledgling MTV network decided to host an awards show to celebrate the refreshing, youthful and fun nature of the music video medium. The Video Music Awards would be a show that would decry the stuffy and antiquated nature of the American Music Awards and the Grammys, and would not celebrate winning and losing, but instead would celebrate how fresh and entertaining NEW music, not the 40+ year old acts that were dominating the “mainstream” were. Well, something funny happened on the way to the forum, and by 2009, there’s a generation of kids that would lead you to believe that the VMAs are a “serious” awards event. Maybe it’s the nature of our severely ironic culture, maybe it’s MTV, 26 years later, has arrived at the cultural vanguard. But last night’s VMAs, and namely the acts of Kanye West, were met with SERIOUS angst. Like people got offended. At the VMAs? The same VMAs Eddie Murphy hosted whilst walking into a bathroom. The same VMAs where Prince performed in assless pants. The same VMAs where Michael and Lisa Marie, and Madonna, Britney and Xstina (remember that ‘phase,’ lol) kissed like naughty yet innocent schoolgirls. The same VMAs where Howard Stern appeared as “Buttman.” The same VMAs where Lil Kim walked around in a breast baring purple lycra singlet and Diana Ross jiggled her bosom. This is now the same VMAs where TWICE (in Europe and in the states), Kanye West has carried on true to his well crafted media form like a petulant child craving attention, and carrying himself like a “musical genius” so his incendiary positions are always and immediately correct. Noted circus showman P.T. Barnum stated famously that there’s a “sucker born every minute.” MTV’s VMAs aren’t “serious highbrow awards.” Hell, when they were for about five years, nobody seemed to care. Now it’s the circus again, and last night, apparently the universe forgot what they were dealing with.
Photo Credit: MTV/Getty Images
A note before beginning. Madonna, Janet Jackson and MTV deserve ALL the credit in the universe for treating Michael Jackson like the iconic figure of music that he will always be. The Michael Jackson tribute, while a part of the show, was so vastly incongruous in nature, style, class, ability and taste that it really deserved to be on the Grammys if the show that followed was the direction MTV intended to take the event, which in this reviewers mind, it was.
The winning and losing of trophies shaped like men holding an MTV flag on the moon was once again not the domain of the MTV Music Video Awards, whose 2009 version came off more than ever like a ribald event straight from the minds that brought you the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus or The Bee Gees’ starmaking vehicle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In fact, it would be most factual to state that the people who really got into the theatrical nature of the proceedings were the biggest winners in popular culture coming out of the event. Lady Gaga, who took her approximations at simultaneously recreating stylistic choices of Bjork and Roisin Murphy, while at the same time murdering then hanging herself onstage, playing a baby grand with her boot during her performance of her latest and most mercurial and bizarre single “Paparazzi,” and generally being so acutely strange so as to even make people accustomed with the realm of the weird and bizarre take note, was the night’s most noteworthy pop culture (and by thanking God and “the gays,” in winning her moon man, cross cultural) star. As well, Pink, whose rise onto the international map was just as fast as her quick fade into very talented obscurity, by performing “Sober” whilst performing Cirque du Soleil level acrobatics vaulted back into the national consciousness as a “cool, badass chick” without having to resort to wrapping herself completely in a red lace sheath dress with matching red lace crown and facemask, to the point of near blindness, as Gaga did, like a piece of Christo’s artwork.
Photo Credit: MTV/Getty Images
As well, the recasting of Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles as both music’s elder statespeople and notable makers of good taste was cemented by the event. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” performance was magical, as he and Alicia Keys, by merely displaying the gravitas and talent of being Alicia Keys and Jay-Z murked the event with a performance that wasn’t legendary, but when surrounded by the likes of Katy Perry doing the “second open” of the show dressed like Queen’s Freddie Mercury, with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry wailing away on “We Will Rock You” to welcome noisome, insipid and bratty faux hipster douchebag gimmicked host Russell Brand to the stage, that’s all Jay and Alicia needed to do. More on Beyonce later, but her development into this generation’s Diana Ross, replete with grace, beauty and decency, perpetually windswept hair like Ms. Ross’ famous 1980 performance in Central Park, and appreciably schmaltzy crowd grabbing and mid tune banter is a magical transformation that deserves praise.
The playing of guitars and banging of drums by guys not laden in tattoos or doing arena tours not sponsored by Vans was back in effect for MTV, who, in pushing Kings of Leon with a slew of solid, road tested, and smooth sounding rock veterans as “new” mainstream acts, is a welcome breath of fresh air. Industry rock veterans Green Day prattled on about the ills of war, as has been their lot of late, but Muse, the Brit veterans who are underground kingpins in the US, knocked the VMAs on its collective ass with a performance of “Uprising” from their latest album The Resistance, in which lead singer Matthew Bellamy ran from the sold out Walter Kerr Theater into Radio City Music Hall to complete a fabulous show for the Brit vets who, in touring with U2 stateside this fall, as well as being reimaged from raging, experimental Brit powerhouses into handsome European men in suits who rock hard, are poised for a giant rest of 2009.
Hip hop was represented too, as Eminem got the Britney Spears career rehabilitation treatment from last year, as a VERY, very subdued Mr. Mathers accepted his Best Rap Video award for “We Made You,” which by no means was the best rap video of the year, but he was allowed by process of “winning,” to come onstage, explain himself, appear gracious, and start a career as a conscientious father who made some egregious life errors.
Hip hop was also on the “house band” side stage this year, as Wale, backed by the sartorially splendorous go go up and comers UCB (lead singer Tre rocking a fresh red bomber jacket from DC clothier Durkl’s fall 2009 line) performed literally every song nominated for video of the year, with some other hits, as notably Pitbull’s “Calle Ocho,” Kid Cudi’s heartfelt, DJ AM tributed “Make Her Say,” The All American Rejects’ “Treat You Well,” and the controversially shorn Solange Knowles on Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” were all solid, if unspectacular. Unfortunately, for the home viewer, the sound from the stage was so poorly mixed it made the excellent go go of UCB sound B grade, and the red light swathing the stage, along with Wale’s incredibly short sighted idea to wear neutral and dark colors whilst being dark skinned made him nearly a background voice in his own spotlight moment. This was later rectified when he performed the second half in bright colors accentuating his unique charisma. However, those spots are meant for the live crowd and industry suits who are forced to hear them live, ALL NIGHT, and given that our favorite male twitterologist (word to The Couch Sessions’ Dafna “@ladyglock” Steinberg for the reference) just announced his inclusion on the Roc Nation Jay Z/Lupe Fiasco bill, I guess he’s doing quite well for himself.
But onto Kanye. It would appear as readily apparent that since Taylor Swift’s nerd hipster, bleeding heart, unrequited love pop anthem “You Belong With Me” hit the charts, that the crossover country girl was destined to be the next big all encompassing pop queen. Country got a gigantic pop injection with Darius Rucker’s career saving turn as smooth African-American country balladeer shocked and pleased, so, in Swift, apple pie cute with phenomenal pop sensibilities, the country to pop crossover could easily take place, in a manner never seen before. Unfortunately, it’s 2009, and, as Cobra Starship (conspicuous in their lack of appearance to perform their summer smash “Good Girls Go Bad,”) has stated, it is true that, well, fresh scrubbed pop princesses are passe, and for the sake of marketing and promotion, she needed, well, a little, umm, something.
Not to fuel the fire or fan flames, but let’s be blunt here. If Taylor Swift won a Grammy or an AMA, there’s NO WAY IN HELL THIS WOULD HAVE EVER HAPPENED. Again, the VMAs were started as a cinema verite, highly ironic take on awards shows. Does anyone ever really “need” a moon man to validate any marketing or promotional moves a label will make behind them? Kanye West looked like he put on an outfit he otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead wearing at an awards show. He looked like he was out of central casting. Tight leather motorcycle shirt, double dark sunglasses, and stone washed Evisu style denim shoved into black motorcycle jackboots? He looked like the scariest, most menacing figure he could, terrifying the young pop princess to be coranated, dressed in her cotillion whites. Beyonce sitting in the crowd? Appalled, but sensing that she may just have a chance to rectify things later. And she did. When accepting her award for the video, she called young Taylor back onstage, and she emerged, womanly, slinky red spaghetti strap dress and all, poised, proud, confident and leaving, with Beyonce comparing Taylor Swift to herself at 17 with Destiny’s Child at the start of a giant career, the newest and brightest face of pop music, both young and old, in America. Kanye West, he’s the tortured “international asshole,” the never understood artist who sadly, yet extremely profitably, has parlayed his mother’s untimely demise into an artistic, self loathing, self culture, in which with each carefully calculated move, he breaks himself down and debases himself more and more, but somehow the music gets better and better, with unparalleled emotional depth and substance. Insulting Taylor Swift? Just another terrifyingly expected day at the office. A blog apology blaming Hennessy? I expect Hennessy to have Kanye’s people on speed dial in the morning.
The 2009 VMAs cemented that pop music, more than ever, is a three ring circus prepared to explode into a greater stratosphere. And given the millions of Tweets on Twitter and expected great ratings, we love it more than ever.