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.
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….
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.