by / September 15th, 2009 /

VMAs 09 – The Brand leading the Bland

Three things you need for a successful awards show. A great host. Great performances. Just a touch of controversy. Sadly this holy trinity has been missing of late in the awards that we would concern ourselves with – MTV, The Meteors, Brits. At best you can hope for the odd glimpse, usually one or two memorable live showings and some musician making a fool of him or herself (who are we kidding, they’re always blokes). The VMAs 09, as well all know by now, saw dear Kanye West return to his default setting after last year’s show stealing performance of ‘Love Lockdown’.

That, however, was still to come as we opened the show with Madonna striding sombrely onto the stage to address the major elephant in the room, the passing of Michael Jackson – an artist who came to define more than most during its glory days. Leaving Madonna’s stunningly self obsessed eulogy aside, the opening number was certainly an old school all singing, all dancing spectacular – even featuring sister Janet in a virtual duet on -Scream’. Put aside the fact that if he had lived and attempted those London shows his career may well have been in tatters, but they still handled the inevitable well and with style.Watching this solemn opening, however, raised the spectre of Russell Brand and how he would react. This time last year his role as host was an oddity, a gamble that paid off. This time he is a biggish star in the US, certainly big enough to warrant an introduction from Katy and Joe Perry. With that stardom comes more to lose and he certainly isn’t about to throw it all away just to score a cheap Michael Jackson laugh. His opening monologue gets off to a shaky start and never really recovers, settling down as it does into a succession of shagging gags – the kind of stuff he can do in his sleep. Only his quick health care jibe seems to raise a reaction and he is an oddly impotent figure throughout the night, making only fleeting appearances.

From there on the whole thing becomes a tad confusing for those on this side of the Atlantic or over fifteen years old. Who are these people being wheeled out to read the autocue badly and mess up their carefully scripted ad-libs? Why have only a grand total of what feels like five different artists been nominated across the categories? And what the hell is Kanye West doing? At least we can answer the last one. He’s making a fool of himself. Again.

What is it with West and these awards? As one of the State writers put it, he probably thinks he’s showing maturity by bitching about someone else not winning as opposed to himself. As it was, his intervention was a classic hide behind your hands moment – not least for the obviously mortified Beyonce. Taylor Swift, meanwhile, just crumbled and every mention of the rapper’s name for the rest of the evening was roundly booed. In 808s & Heartbreak he made a career defining record. On Sunday he defined himself for all the wrong reasons.

As the award giving continued it became clear that the homogenisation of American mainstream music has reached an absurd level. You would swear that the nominees for Best Male were all for the same video, the same song even. We know that hip-hop and r ‘n’ b dominate the US charts but could there have not been some attempt to show a musical world beyond them? Well actually there was a Breakthrough Artist, won by Matt & Kim ahead of Bat For Lashes, Passion Pit and Major Lazer but that category wasn’t deemed worthy of broadcast, as sure as Kid Cudi, Wale and any other interesting hip-hop artist was relegated to playing during the many ad breaks.

Back in the (not so) real world, the artist of the night is unavoidably Lady Gaga. Any country that considers this woman as the pinnacle of pop music is seriously in trouble. Take away the horrible kookiness, stupid. stupid, stupid outfits and tabloid fascination and you’re left with very little. Surely this performance was an overblown exercise in papering over the cracks….In fact the rule of thumb for the night seemed to be the more outlandish the staging, the more slight the material. Taylor Swift did some awful thing on the subway (although earlier events gave it a sense of vindication) and Beyonce put on a spectacle that saw her as the weakest link in the chain. Pink‘s choice of song too was a bit strange but her trapeze act was a genuine show stealer.And so, as is so often the ironic case, it was the real live bands that came into pop’s backyard and kicked it’s ball over the fence. Again Green Day went with one of their weaker tunes but at least installed a sense of excitement, especially when their stage invasion really did seem to freak out the MTV heads. Pick of the bunch though had to be Muse, a band who we are used to seeing in full stadium rock pomp but seemed slightly small amidst all this glitz, pushed down the road to a separate venue. This though is their big shot at the US and they nail it, proving that beneath it all are still an electrifying live act.

After a show that was neither amazingly good or stupifyingly bad, mainly just dull, what the VMAs needed was a big finish. The arrival of Jay-Z had been trailed all evening and as a cavalcade of limos pulled up outside Radio City, it looked as if we might just get it. And we just about did, thanks more to an amazing Alicia Keys than perhaps Jay himself, but at least he proved that – in the right hands – black American music can still have a commanding and beguiling presence. Every year, however, and every VMAs make that faith harder and harder to maintain.

  • Kanye is the biggest, obnoxious prick in the music business. I actually thought it was one of the better VMA’s. Aside from that cringe-y covers act…
    In fairness to Lady Gaga, she sure can put on a show. Stupid costumes, though.
    Very nice of Beyoncé to let Taylor Swift get a second chance, I thought she gave a fun little performance 🙂
    Muse just seemed bland to me, didn’t like it at all
    I was quite surprised with the Jay-Z song, Alicia clearly made it but a nice catchy song 🙂

  • Great article, although I find myself disagreeing with the large chunk of it. Partly because it seems to be written without any understanding of what the VMAs actually is, i.e. big, glossy, over produced MTV candyfloss. As someone who watches the show every year, I found this year, although not perfect, a huge step from previous years and a thoroughly enjoyable show.

    Madonna did focus on herself in her speech but the way she related her personal experience of Jackson was clever and moving. And it worked aswell because a huge amount of the grief over Jackson’s death was about how people who didn’t really know him reflecting on the impact he made on them. And that was what Madonna did. And particularly given their similar status in pop music and as figures of MTV/the VMAs it was only right that she deliver a speech of that nature.

    I thought Russell did a good job considering the format and the fact that his humour obviously doesn’t sit that well with alot of Americans. Given how much they squeeze into the show (including those numerous ad breaks) he did a good job of maintaining an energy and tone. Compared to the year Dave Chapelle “hosted” and did a total of 2 segments, Russell was everywhere and has a left a tough act for the next host to follow.

    I don’t really think much else needs to be said about Kanye and I agree with everything you said.

    The idea about how “homogenised” the nominees are is missing the point and could be levelled at any award show given how they insist on placing acts into certain categories. Also the Breakthrough Artist was shown (albeit briefly) during the pre-show along with a handful of other categories. Sure, all the male nominees were commerical hip-hop/R&B but anyone who could say Jay Z’s DOA is the same tune as Eminem’s We Made You is not only not paying attention to pop music but probably doesn’t care for it anyway and is probably not going to enjoy something like the VMAs. Also given that Wale, who is by no means a proven success with a wider audience yet, got a plug every five minutes as “house band” I think the newer acts were getting plenty of attention.

    Also I find it hilarious how everyone assumes people only like Lady Gaga because of her “crazy outfits” and that she is always in the papers. The fact that she has written some of the brightest, smartest pop songs in years that millions of people love (and have actually gone out and bought compared to lots of other struggling stars) and has done more press, performances and work promoting her music that any other major label artist in years has nothing to do with it. Gaga was the only artist at the whole show who handed up a performance that was genuinely new, genuinely eye popping and genuinely enjoyable.

    Beyonce and Pink were as solid as ever but they were both replaying the performances they are presenting on world tours they took breaks out of to attend the show. Taylor Swift was undeniably cheesy but the whole evening was an exercise in why teen USA have taken her to her hearts and the performance was an excellent reminder of that.

    And of course “the real live bands” stole the show. Of course. Green Day had fun and it was nice to see them involve the crowd but I sincerly doubt it wasn’t planned. Muse were undeniably good but theirs was an easy shot, a crowd of devoted fans, in a tiny theater, for their first ever gig, it was only ever going to go in their favour.

    Jay Z brought things to a close efficiently and with a great nod to both the city that VMAs belong in and to his own status as a hip hop legend. Plus the staging was beautiful and the hilarious Lil’ Mama stage raid was another eyebrow raising moment.

    The other parts might have seemed like filler but it was perfectly judged. MTV plugging their own shows (hello Kristen Cavallari, returning Hills bad girl), “young hollywood” favourites (Hello Chace Crawford and Leighton Meester), gobby emo types beloved of MTV (hello Pete Wentz!) and upcoming kiddie stars (oh dear, hello Miranda Cosgrove and Justin Bieber). They covered everything you’d want from a big budget, tacky awards show on a station obsessed with “lifestyle” programming as much as big popstars.

    I can see why you felt the way you did about the show, but maybe if you entered into it with a different eye, i.e. a fan of MTV you might have got more out of it? I hope this response doesn’t seem too catty, I just think that not taking a show like this as big entertainment is not doing it justice.

  • I agree with alot of the points here, I really think the current wave of mainstream pop music is wearing itself out. Things like Autotune and the standard R & B production you now here on every track, bar some stand out Timbaland and neptunes work, as well as some Kanye West stuff from the early part of the decade will all be looked back on in ten years time the same way we look back on much of the 1980’s. I think more angular guitar music has a chance of coming back in over the next few years as it did in the early 1990’s, as people tire of homogenised electronic sampled synths, the affore mentioned autotuned vocals as well as electronic bass drums and claps. Am i being too much of a dreamer? i think rock music really needs to step up and remember whats rock and role…Slightly out of tune singing, nothing perfect but raw and real, not Fall out boy!

    p.s. saying that, I don’t like the direction muse are going, I found them over the top at best before, but the new album just doesn’t have the quality of pop song/rock blend as an album like absolution did.