No pop-star threeways, no meat dresses, no speech-crashing, no boob jiggles, no compacts thrown, no assless pants, no shade, no “This World Is Bullshit,” and definitely no twerking. This year’s MTV Video Music Awards, airing living from The Forum in LA on Sunday (August 24), were downright tame, even snoozy. That is, until Beyoncé and Miley shook things up in the last half hour. But the two pop juggernauts did so without controversy — an approach that seemed to trickle down to define this year’s ceremony. Even a Nicki Minaj wardrobe malfunction, which she handled beautifully mid-performance without revealing more than her navel, came to define the rapper’s three performances during the night, including celebrations of the ass during opening number “Anaconda” and a booty-bumping moment with Usher.
Perhaps more than any other awards show, craft is not necessarily the first thing one thinks of with regards to the VMAs. This is where stars come to get buckwild, wear pasties, make out, etc. But when you set the show up as an opening act for Beyoncé, aka “the greatest living entertainer” (to steal Jay Z’s words), professionalism is the mic-drop moment. As Bey accepted this year’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, she seamlessly shifted the conversation away from her so-called troubled marriage and even her past (an angle fully explored by her Super Bowl halftime performance). Beyoncé made now the narrative with a medley of nearly every song off her self-titled 2013 album, shifting seamless between tempo changes and the songs’ accompanying visuals (off the album) for 15 minutes.
The performance may have lacked the singular artistic concept of Knowles’ 2011 Billboard Music Awards 4-era reinvention, the shock of her baby-bump reveal at the 2011 VMAs, and the chemistry of her “Drunk in Love” duet with bae Jay at this year’s Grammys, but what Beyoncé did last night showed the stunning breadth of characters she plays — feminist, mother, wife, bad bitch, emotional softie, sex kitten — all while being her flawless self. She did what is nearly impossible for an awards show performance: she showed dimension as an artist, and she dominated the conversation without stooping to stunts. Hell, there wasn’t even a wardrobe change, or more than a few words outside of “thank you” and “I love you.” (The cute kid and Jay smooches helped with the whole “changing the troubled personal narrative” bit, too.)
Beyonce’s queen status is hardly news, but something this year’s VMAs highlighted was Miley Cyrus’ newfound interest in political statements. One year removed from the VMA performance that launched a thousand thinkpieces, Cyrus used the platform it afforded her to say something important. Winning the Video of the Year Award for something like “Wrecking Ball,” where she was naked and directed by Terry Richardson, was bound to be controversial. Cyrus flipped the script by having her date, a young homeless man named Jesse, accept the award on her behalf. As he went on to explain, “Los Angeles has the largest population of homeless youth in America. The music industry will make over $7 million this year and outside these doors are 54,000 human beings who have no place to call home.” While Miley looked on proudly and tearfully, Jesse dedicated the award to “the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving, lost and scared for their lives right now” and asked viewers to donate to the cause via Miley’s Facebook page.
Inevitably, some will call Miley’s methods smug and self-serving: the way she funneled donations to Hollywood homeless shelter My Friend’s Place through her social platforms, or how much she teased her “surprise” to come on the VMAs red carpet earlier in the evening (as well as alluding to it on her Twitter in the preceding days). But she deserves credit for using what is inherently a shallow, self-promoting platform for a worthy cause. Good deeds don’t always come from the most expected places or in the most conventional ways. This is the move no one expected from Miley, and it was the most positive thing she could have done.
Elsewhere in the show, in much smaller ways, class acts floated to the top, at least as far as the narrative is concerned (fuck the awards, no one cares about VMAs). When the front zipper on her dress failed to go up, Nicki Minaj showed us how a seasoned entertainer pulls off a wardrobe malfunction while still out-doing Jessie J (thank god Nicki was wearing a headset instead of holding a mic).
Sam Smith and Ariana Grande, two new stars who generally favor safe pop tactics, gave some of the night’s most memorable performances, while the animalistic gimmicks of Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora made barely a blip on social media. Even Taylor Swift’s take on the “It” Girl flanked by hunky men — a subtle nod to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” — was tepid at best, and bound for more criticism. In another, more expected, gesture towards politics, Common asked for a moment of silence in remembrance for Michael Brown. Admittedly, none of these things are part of some larger intended narrative put into motion by MTV. But in the outrage renaissance of now, the VMAs provided an alternative, albeit one less suited for the awards show controversies we’ve come to expect.