MTV is never fond of promoting the age of its annual Video Music Awards and as it turned 30 Sunday night in Brooklyn it worked hard to say it could compete with the raunch of the Internet, the career achievement component of the Grammys and up-to-date promotional power of TV talk shows.
Justin Timberlake gave the show its heart and center, a focus that otherwise would be on Miley Cyrus's stripper moves, Kanye West's curious performance in the dark and Taylor Swift singing along with every other performer's songs. Timberlake, who received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, treated the audience to a monster medley that included about a minute-long reunion of 'N Sync and a tour of unseen areas of the Barclays Center.
Timberlake's performance was controlled yet exuberant, the choreography compact and never flashy, a bit of restraint that balanced the excessive routines of performers in the the show's first hour. Unlike other awards shows, MTV and the VMAs concern themselves only the biggest and the brightest with a level of relevance to current generation; they have no interest in telling anyone they are now 30.
But Timberlake made for a perfect honoree. Relevant as a modern recording artist and as solid a link as any artist today in the lineage of Jackson, Madonna and Britney Spears, the network's pride and joy when it comes to reliving the VMAs classic moments. His performance, unlike that of a spaced-out Spears a few years back, elevated the show to a plane that the others never reached. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Bruno Mars were closer than the others, but from Lady Gaga's arty tribute to wig and costume changes to Cyrus' stripper-stuck-in-a-1995-rave act to West's slow-paced silhouette, the show felt like it was reaching for a moment that would spike the Twitter chat and have people buzzing for days.
Having attended multiple VMAs, this year's event felt made for the audience in the arena with insufficient attention paid to the viewer at home. Lights shooting into the audience washed out shots, camera angles were consistently distant, refusing to suggest any level of intimacy, and the "feel" of Brooklyn that was promised was never delivered. Not as bad as the bizarre show from Las Vegas, but as the pre-show site-specific hype made it sound , one would have thought America was going to go to bed saying "youse" and humming the Beastie Boys.
The big "Brooklyn" moment was Katy Perry's closer at the Brooklyn Bridge, and her rendition of "Roar" in a boxing motif delivered the attributes of a well-crafted, safe music video. Lady Gaga debuted her new single "Applause" to open the show, reaching for esoteric visual reference points that would likely only be grasped by fans of David Bowie and Bjork. Her slew of costume and wig changes ended with her in a thong and a bra of sea shells, which she wore through the rest of the evening while in the audience.
Last year when Frank Ocean and Green Day were the lone performers not part of the party-dance-pop movement to appear, MTV made popular feel monochromatic and undistinguished. It didn't get much better this year, but it is becoming clearer that MTV does not need to understand pop music or the music video renaissance to stage this annual affair. (The product placement bonanza they refer to as pre-show is where they really show their understanding of music and TV: there was news about phones and soft drinks and even a Danity Kane reunion.)
But MTV and the VMA producers do need to understand limits and how to coax great performances out the booked artists. Nothing is more off-putting than a censor working overtime to cut out a performer's cursing and West did himself no favors in two fronts -- language that was too rough and a tempo that was too slow for TV.
Eight awards were handed out on air, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis being the only performers to make their way to the winner's circle twice on air. The producers really could not have asked for a better parade of name attractions winning on the show: Taylor Swift in a gracious mode; Bruno Mars probably thinking "it's about time I won"; and One Direction being able to soak in girls' screams.
It felt fitting that Timberlake would walk away with the Video of the Year honors for his "Mirrors." It's been watched an impressive 93 million times on YouTube over the last five months though the song did not have the cultural cache of its competition, especially Robin Thicke's ubiquitous "Blurred Lines." Sex sells, but it doesn't necessarily win awards.