Sunday night's tame and professional 27th annual MTV Video Music Awards were about all the non-musical things they're always about: celebrity and spectacle. What was Lady Gaga wearing? (A bejeweled, earth-tone Maid Marian dress by Alexander McQueen to start.) Which woman had the filthiest mouth? (Katy Perry made a boner joke, but comedian host Chelsea Handler managed to get bleeped a couple of times.) Are Drake and Nicki Minaj really married now? (No, his trending-topic tweet was a goof.)
But this year's show was even short on the spectacle.
For the most part, the 2010 VMAs were surprisingly traditional. Handler's opening monologue was a basic template of tame jokes aimed at the celebrities in attendance. When she climbed into a hot tub with the "Jersey Shore" cast, nothing really heated up. Hems were low. Shirts stayed on. Even the presenters from "Jackass," one of whom tore away his pants to reveal anatomically correct padded briefs, failed to elicit a titter in the audience, much less a flutter on Twitter. To cap it off, Cher appeared wearing the once-shocking see-through body stocking and leather jacket from her video for "If I Could Turn Back Time" in 1992 -- back when MTV first refused to air it because of "partial nudity." Presenting the night's biggest award to Lady Gaga, who handed the 62-year-old her meat purse to hold, Cher looked as quaint as Betty White.
Handler was quick to acknowledge the "big, black elephant in the room" -- referring to Chicago rapper Kanye West and his infamous interruption of award winner Taylor Swift at last year's VMAs. The network made a lot of hay with this, promoting Sunday's show for weeks by promising that West and Swift would be on the same stage again. They were, just not together. At least not physically -- both unfortunately attempted to psychoanalyze themselves in new songs penned about this overblown incident.
That Swift went along with this gimmick -- performing a dour hymn allegedly written about West's stage-crashing -- is nothing short of embarrassing. That she sang so awfully is even worse. The teen country-pop singer appeared made up like a '40s starlet, sitting on a stool and starting the tune by strumming a dobro. "Some things you can't speak of / but tonight you live it all again," she sang, with the dewiest of doe eyes; the untitled song then absolved West of his spontaneity, addressing an unnamed 32-year-old and saying, "You're still an innocent."
It might have been moving if she'd been on key for at least, say, a third of it. Remember how bad she sounded in January at the Grammys, making duet partner Stevie Nicks sound like Susan Boyle by comparison? How her management vociferously defended her performance, claiming it was an aberration? Better reprint those press releases and change the dates. Girl can't sing well live, and much of the Twitterverse joined me in wishing that Kanye -- or anyone at all -- would barge on stage now and interrupt her again.
As if his tweet parade hasn't been enough mea culpa, West closed the show with his lyrical input on the melodrama. His performance wasn't exactly up to par, either, but in a nice twist the rapper once similarly derided for his own tonally challenged live singing (remember "Saturday Night Live"?) dared to go there again in his new song, "Runaway," and sounded pretty OK. He rapped mostly, joined by Pusha T from Clipse. The song also provided an intriguing illustration of where today's on-air censorship lines are. The s-word was bleeped, but West's self-deprecating refrain came through loud and clear: "Let's have a toast for the douchebags ... for the a--holes ... for the scumbags ... for the jerk-offs ..."
Some performances were definitely worth tuning in for. Florence & the Machine brought the song "Dog Days Are Over" to the stage with grace and confidence instead of flash and trash. Powerful singer Florence Welch was decked in a plain, beige, lingerie-inspired dress -- we're talking more nightie than teddie.
It was a good night for hip-hop. Drake, in a dapper dinner jacket, was joined by Swiss Beatz and Mary J. Blige for a classy delivery. Usher showed his fancy footwork during a laser-drenched performance of "Fallin' in Love" that looked like a production number from "Tron." Eminem opened the night with his "comeback" single, "Not Afraid," starting out in a very intimate, "8 Mile" setting, which then opened into the big stage in the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. Despite reports this week that Rihanna would not make the show because of a scheduling conflict, she appeared mid-song to join Eminem for their hit duet, dressed in a frilly pink tooth-fairy dress. No stunners, no surprises, just a decent song.
Teen phenom Justin Bieber performed, for some reason, outdoors in the California twilight. Much of his performance appeared lip-synched, as a dozen dancers in red letter "B" cardigans threw him through the air yet he never missed a breath. Bieber danced through his hit "Baby," then segued into "Somebody to Love," which he concluded by soloing behind a drum kit. He'd said earlier on the pre-show white carpet that he'd been playing drums since age 2; his solo was pretty simple for having 14 years of practice.
For those who do care about the moonmen: Lady Gaga dominated the awards, winning eight, including video of the year for "Bad Romance." Eminem took two awards during the show, for best male video and best hip-hop video, but wasn't around to accept them; he left for the airport after his opening number. Justin Bieber, big surprise, won the fan-voted best new artist award.