The MTV 2014 Video Music Awards were full of Hot 100 smashes, high-wattage team-ups and must-see song debuts, with some stars ascending to new heights and others stumbling on a huge stage. Who really won the VMAs? Check out our ranking of this year’s Video Music Awards performances, from worst to best.
8. Usher feat. Nicki Minaj, “She Came To Give It To You”
Usher played the bass and then knocked his shoulder against Nicki’s super bass near the tail end (get it?) of an uneven performance of his funky new single. If the “She Came To Give It To You” showcase marked a special occasion for Ursh, that’d be one thing. But in this context, it’s hard not to remember the veteran star’s bigger, better award show performances, particularly from VMAs past.
7. Maroon 5, “Maps”
On the same night that Maroon 5’s new single “Animals” was unveiled in a Kia VMAs commercial, the world’s most reliable pop-rock band trotted out its most recent Top 10 hit outside of the Forum’s confines, and the short affair felt flat. Blame the placement ahead of Beyonce’s much-anticipated stage spectacle, Adam Levine’s Lakers jersey or this newly unearthed tweet if you must, but to our ears, “Maps” was not the show-stopping rock performance Maroon 5 wanted it to be.
6. Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off”
“Shake It Off” marks the beginning of the era of 1989, Taylor Swift’s first full-out pop album, but her debut performance of the bubbly single resembled some of her past awards show spectacles, including her brightly colored takes on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” at the 2012 VMAs and arena-sprawling “22” at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards. There was nothing inherently wrong with Swift’s “Shake It Off” performance — well, the “I won’t jump off that ledge!” bit lost some of her momentum — but Swift has knocked our socks off before, and this performance was entertaining without ever becoming exhilarating. Haters gonna hate, we suppose.
5. 5 Seconds of Summer, “Amnesia”
Kudos to 5 Seconds of Summer for taking a risk and playing the VMAs with the emo-revival-is-definitely-happening ballad “Amnesia,” a slicing slow song on a debut album full of high-energy confections. 5SOS might not have played to their strengths, but they held their own against superstar performers and disintegrating viewer attention spans. The “boy band” moniker can officially be retired when referring to these guys.
4. Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora, “Black Widow”
Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora were easy targets for social media savants stanning for Beyonce on Sunday night, but upon closer examination, the duo’s live debut of “Black Widow” came off as an alluring recreation of the song’s twisting contours. Azalea’s ductile flow was delivered with impressive panache in between dance moves, and Ora kept the handclaps coming while belting in front of a spider web graphic. “Black Widow” became Azalea’s second top 10 (as the lead artist) on the Hot 100 chart this week, and judging from her VMAs launch, this run of success is only the beginning.
3. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj & Jessie J, “Break Free/Anaconda/Bang Bang”
The 2014 VMAs ended with an iconic performance, but what better way to start the show than with a blast of unadulterated fun? The Ariana/Nicki/Jessie mash-up was disjointed and far from spotless (Nicki had to clutch the top of her dress to avoid a wardrobe malfunction), but it played out like a giddy overview of pop’s current landscape, which is full of big voices, butt jokes, spaceships and fierce women with distinct styles who demand respect.
2. Sam Smith, “Stay With Me”
Three years ago, Adele took the VMAs stage, and instead of blasting through her powerhouse single “Rolling in the Deep,” she opted for the haunting ballad “Someone Like You” and blew the roof off. Sam Smith’s performance of “Stay With Me” possessed a similar effect: the U.K. newcomer could have gotten the Forum dancing with “Latch,” his top 10 collaboration with Disclosure, but he decided to present pure emotion and an irresistible falsetto while pleading for a companion. By the end of the performance, Smith had seemingly the entire Forum — and undoubtedly thousands more watching from the comfort of their homes — rooting for him. “Stay With Me” was a well-earned star-making moment.
1. Beyonce, Beyonce Medley
As if anyone else threatened the top spot. The 2014 MTV Video Music Awards felt like a prelude to the Beyonce Show: lots of admirable performances in various genres, but nothing on the level she recently reached with her sneak-attack visual album. Instead of backtracking through her discography the way that Justin Timberlake did when he won the Video Vanguard Award in 2013, Beyonce’s performance belonged strictly to the present, racing through an album named after its creator to reflect her current mindset, beliefs and emotions. She was sultry during “Partition,” empathetic on “Blue,” all encompassing for “XO.” But more than anything, she was relentless, making sure each piece of choreography was perfectly composed and each facial expression ferociously realized. Beyonce is a breathtaking performer, but she’s also a 32-year-old wife and mother whom we collectively worry is happy. So when Jay Z appeared with Blue Ivy in his arms and called his quote-unquote estranged partner the world’s “greatest living entertainer,” it was the perfect way to polish off a career highlight — an artistic triumph giving way to personal satisfaction.
When Beyonce walked offstage following her performance, joined by the Video Vanguard Award and her superstar family, the MTV Video Music Awards abruptly ended, because nothing could follow what Beyonce had done. It was, in a word, flawless.