High points? O.K., to be fair, there were exactly two.
Kanye West's performance of Blood on the Leaves was exceptional. Sticking closely to the minimalist script of New Slaves and Black Skinheads, West was high-energy wild and artfully stylish at once. He came out, bounded around and was brilliant, then he left. Bewildered by anything of actual quality, everybody in the Brooklyn audience and everybody watching at home quickly forgot about him.
Justin Timberlake's Broadway-style 15-minute song-and-dance medley was phenomenal. He and his dancers were clearly having a great time and executed pretty much flawlessly. The music, as is most Timberlake music, was beautiful and wholly empty, the performance meaningless but, damn, he is a huge talent. Would be nice if he had some material worthy of it.
But let's face it, if a reunion of N Sync, with all its customarily well-packaged Pablum, is among the high points of your night, you are having a spectacularly bad night.
The deepest of the low points were, not coincidentally, dug by the top-featured artists. To itemize:
Lady Gaga's Applause performance was a letdown. Her choreography, like her video, was scattershot and she and her dancers looked under-rehearsed. She is currently surrounding herself ambitiously with a bunch of cultural junk to make a raft for her music. But the raft doesn't float, doesn't even hold together, and the music, reeking of bilge water to begin with, merely sinks.
Katy Perry's Roar is a Cher anthem on steroids. Her boxing ring analogy looked awkward and boring. I liked the fact that she wasn't trying to look particularly sexy. That was refreshing. Otherwise, a completely uninteresting performance. As if to say, "We have no idea what we're doing up here" her dancers held up two signs at the end that spelled "Game Over." Just FYI, Team Perry, a boxing match is not generally referred to as a "game."
Somebody got paid a lot of money for that idea. Yeesh.
Then we have Miley Cyrus. Everyone wants to discuss this in terms of sexuality vs. Hannah Montana, bringing up the historic value of shocking behavior at the VMAs and even throwing in feminism as a defense.
On Entertainment Weekly Darren French summarized the most common of these neatly in a back-and-forth with Kyle Anderson:
It seems like the core of the anti-Miley brigade is the idea that she's a former child star who is now, terrifyingly, a sexual human being. This strikes me as a mixture of nostalgic nonsense and puritanical nonsense. Like, is there any way for a former Disney star to avoid that controversy? Would you have preferred a more tasteful performance? Clutch those pearls, Gramma Kyle!
I agree that the outrage stems from Cyrus's past life as a child Disney star in one important respect: She would not have been on the stage at the nationally televised Video Music Awards were it not for that history. Her VMA stage show was a completely amateurish piece of rubbish. Put all the sexuality squabbling aside and you're left with nothing.
Leading into the above quote, French offers the point that "We Can't Stop
is a really great song." Actually it's a terrible song, unoriginal, uninspired and unintelligent, albeit very well produced. The video is much, much better than Cyrus's performance at the VMAs, much better even than Gaga's video for Applause
But good studio production values can't make up for that show. Cyrus' costumes were unflattering, particularly the flesh colored swimsuit. The dancers with teddy bears strapped to their backs looked miserable and silly. Robin Thicke was overshadowed and looked completely out of place standing next to her in an equally out-of-place Beetlejuice suit. Cyrus' attempts at sleeziness had no style or discipline to them, making her look look like a bad barroom pole dancer. I don't get the whole Jabba the Hutt thing with the tongue but whatever.
Cyrus is a reality show phenomenon, a child star who dreamed of making the transition to adult pop star and had the money and the pull to make it happen, living out her fantasy onstage, regardless of whether she was ready.
She wasn't ready. She isn't ready.
So there you have it. The VMAs did exactly what they are designed to do. They served as a barometer measuring the pressure of the latest crazes in pop music and, simultaneously, a peep show into the private lusts of a handful of post-teenage celebrities who have, deliberately or no, through hard work and talent or otherwise, stumbled blindly onto Mount Olympus.
If they made fools of themselves, there are plenty surrounding them in the music business who are laughing all the way to the bank. And the stars in question, careers noticeably harder or even shortened in some cases, have no one but themselves to blame.
What a sorry showing.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park