Critic’s Notebook: Rihanna, Chris Brown and Drake Triumph at Video Music Awards

September 7th, 2012

Broadcast Thursday night on MTV live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the MTV Video Music Awards is now in its 29th year, making it older than the overwhelming majority of this year’s award winners.

But this is not a legacy award show. Valued for its structured freespiritedness and to some degree its stylistic diversity, the VMAs remain the annual ceremony with the greatest potential for shock, even if in recent years it’s rarely delivered on it.

That’s because the stakes are lower than they’ve ever been. Musicians act out all year long, and rarely on MTV or any of its related properties. Still, year in and year out, big stars – if not quite the biggest – come to experience a coronation like the one their heroes had, even if it’s depreciated in value.

This year the VMAs handed out just six awards in two hours. (More awards were announced online.) The love triangle of Rihanna, Chris Brown and Drake all won awards – Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (featuring Calvin Harris) was video of the year; Mr. Brown’s “Turn Up the Music” was best male video; Drake’s “HYFR” (featuring Lil Wayne) was best hip-hop video. Drake’s labelmate Nicki Minaj won best female video for “Starships.”

The night’s other awards – all two of them, best pop video and best new artist – were won by One Direction, the British boy band who would have been champions of MTV’s “Total Request Live” golden age, but who now generate much of their heat online. Consensus doesn’t look like it used to.

Still, though, no award show is better equipped than the VMAs to acknowledge the success of a group like that. The VMAs carry the burden of still being the forward-looking and youth-oriented music fan’s award show, a responsibility it has inherited but isn’t necessarily equipped for.

That’s because of MTV’s legacy as a platform for breaking music has remained seemingly unshakable despite several years of docusoaps, dramatic sitcoms about awkward teens and reality-star athletic competitions. No network or organization has stepped up to fill its void, even in this era in which musicians are as present in the commercials as on the show itself – Nicki Minaj for Pepsi and Adidas, Lady Gaga for her new perfume, Fergie and Common for Case-Mate, the stars of “The Voice” for “The Voice.”

That means the show plays host to implicitly warring constituencies, as seen here – heritage pop acts like Pink, Alicia Keys and Green Day who still need the bite of youth credibility brush up against legitimate young stars and now also against new acts who’ve garnered their fame in totally unconventional, non-MTV-centric (and non-TV-centric) ways.

That meant a segment where the host, the comedian Kevin Hart, danced alongside PSY, the breakout K-pop star recently signed to an American record deal by Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, emulating the loopy gallop from his “Gangnam Style” video.

The power of the Internet also gave the show its one moment of true pathos in the form of Frank Ocean, the young R&B star who this summer announced that his first love had been a man. He sang “Thinking About You” in near darkness, and with spare backing, magnifying his fragile falsetto. He left the stage almost before the song was done, the only performer of the night to force people onto his terms.

Otherwise, the performances were largely slick and grand-scaled: Rihanna on “Cockiness” (with ASAP Rocky) and “We Found Love”; 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne on “Yuck” and “No Worries.” And there were a handful of moments of fluency in the politics of contemporary music. Presenters Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg sent up hip-hop’s recent turn to the emotional in presenting the best hip-hop video award, which was won by Drake, leader of that movement. In his acceptance speech, after recalling getting picked on as a child for being black and Jewish, he dedicated his win to “any kid that’s ever had a long walk home by yourself,” adding, at the end, “We made it, bitch!”

The show also offered a few brief moments of crossover pop cultural relevance, like asking the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to introduce Ms. Keys, though having Gabby Douglas kick off her shoes to show off a few moves during the performance felt cheap.

As host, Mr. Hart was manic and loud and sometimes laser-focused, but just as often spraying wide and loose. The DJ and producer Mr. Harris was the house DJ for the night, inside some sort of jungle gym that looked like it was imported from the planet Krypton, or maybe just from any edition of the MTV Europe Music Awards, which have been invariably edgier than the home-field production for years.

The show was somehow both commercial-packed and also brutally fast, at least in part because of a stated promise that it wouldn’t run over into President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. The result was a rush job, leaving no room for error or serendipity. (Kanye West wasn’t there, so that helped.)

As if in tribute to efficiency, the night closed with the young country star Taylor Swift, who sang her new single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Three years ago, Ms. Swift was a VMAs naif who had her golden moment interrupted by a surly Mr. West.

But the VMAs are not a show that grows up with you, and Ms. Swift was a virtual eminence grise here. During Mr. Hart’s opening monologue, she laughed loudly at his profanity-thick rant about Kristen Stewart’s affair. And her performance was brisk and saucy, involving choreographed dance moves – part of her move into poppier territory – and ending in a stage dive that was less punk than good stagecraft. Ms. Swift is a pro, now, too famous to really sweat.

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