MTV VMAs 2014 Preview: Creating the Next Miley Moment, Ariana Grande's 'Space Glam' Plan & More
Before last year's MTV Video Music Awards, viewers had no idea what Miley Cyrus was about to unleash on the world, with her twerking and her flesh-colored latex bikini and her tongue wagging. But Dave Sirulnick did.
So heading into this year's VMAs, airing live Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on MTV, what does the veteran producer do to help create those show-stopping moments -- or to manage the ones that no one saw coming (we're looking at you, 2009 Kanye)?
"There are the planned surprises -- planned by us, but a surprise to the audience, which oftentimes is two people performing together who you didn't know until the show started, or something like that. And then, of course, there are the unplanned surprises, which are often very, very fun and we all remember them," Sirulnick told Billboard on Thursday during a press preview of the VMA stage at Inglewood, Calif.'s newly renovated Forum.
"As producers, I feel like what we try to do is work closely with the artists to give them the best platform to express themselves: who they are in that given moment, what they want to get across to their audience," he continued. "But at the same time, putting the right people in the room, all their peers, so the moments can happen. There's a comfort there -- so Beyonce choosing a few years ago to reveal to the world she's pregnant, there was a comfort there with her peers being there and welcoming the audience into that wonderful family moment. … And there's many, many times where we're sitting there watching it happen with the rest of the world, going, 'Oh, wow! OK!'"
One of those planned moments is Ariana Grande opening the show, playing her Zedd-assisted dance track "Break Free" as well as the super-diva anthem "Bang Bang" with Nicki Minaj and Jessie J. Grande teased that her "Stay Free" performance won't stray too far from the song's Barbarella-channeling visual.
"It's gonna be within the realm of the video," she told Billboard on Tuesday. "It is space-themed, of course," noting that the vibe will be similar to the "space-glam" look of the mod astronaut helmet she wore for her recent Billboard cover.
Last year, Grande was playing the VMA pre-show, and now she's opening the whole thing. "I'm so excited to be included, but I'm just so nervous," she said. "I feel like I don't even want to process that I'm doing it until after, and then I'll be like, 'Oh, I did that! That's so crazy!'"
Maybe Charli XCX -- this year's pre-show performer -- can make the same leap next year. She told Billboard she's got big plans for her first moment in the VMA spotlight. "It's going to be lots of drumming," the "Boom Clap" singer promised. "Lots of drums, lots of leather, lots of feathers, lots of angels -- it's going to be amazing."
This is her first time going it alone at an awards show, after backing up Iggy Azalea on "Fancy" at the mtvU Woodie Awards, and she's feeling the pressure. "I'm quite nervous, to be honest, because the only awards show performance I did before was with Iggy, so it's a little different this time because it's my own song. But I'm very excited. I've put a lot of effort into it. I think it's going to be sick."
So who else is joining Grande, Minaj and Jessie J on the main stage? It's a mix of VMA vets -- including Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and Usher -- mixed with newcomers Sam Smith, Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora (performing their "Black Widow" duet), and 5 Seconds of Summer. Bey will be on hand not only to perform, but also to receive the Video Vanguard Award. Sirulnick said it's this dynamic of classic artists and rookies that makes the VMAs.
"A year ago at this time, a lot of people hadn't heard of Sam Smith. Some people had, but a lot of people hadn't heard of Iggy. A lot of people are just getting to know about Ariana Grande. And here they all are on this same stage with Beyonce, with Taylor Swift, with Usher," Sirulnick said. "And it's their chance to show everybody that they can bring it.
"There was a moment a few years ago when Taylor Swift was the new act. There was a moment when Beyonce was the new act. And obviously we've seen that some of their greatest moments have occurred at the VMAs, so now it's time for Sam Smith and for Ariana and for Iggy and see what they can do."
About that Beyonce performance: Sirulnick promises you're not going to want to miss a thing. "Beyonce is a world-class talent, one of the great performers of our time, and she is going to be bringing something to this room, to this stage and to the viewers," the producer said. "She's going to be giving something to the viewers that no one's going to want to miss. You're not going to want to be the person the next day who's like, 'Oh no! I missed that.'"
Bey leads VMA nominations with eight nods this year, but we'll have to wait and see if she's Sunday's big winner. Check out the full list of nominees here. The VMA pre-show kicks off at 8 p.m. ET Sunday, followed by the main show at 9 on MTV.