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MTV VMAs, like Lady Gaga, are all theater, little music

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Lady Gaga, in drag as "Joe Calderone," performs Sunday night
at the start of the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles.
(Getty Images)

On Saturday, Maroon 5 singer and mentor on NBC's "The Voice" Adam Levine lashed out at MTV's annual Video Music Awards, railing on Twitter: "The VMAs. One day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music. I'm drawing a line in the sand. F--- you, VMAs."

He's wrong, though -- the VMAs aren't really about music, either. Never have been. Lady Gaga summed it up it better: "I'm not real," she said, seconds into Sunday night's telecast. "I'm theater!"

Gaga opened the 28th annual VMA ceremony, broadcast live from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, with a performance tailored to the show's tradition of buzzworthy -- or, now, tweet-worthy -- theater and spectacle, flash and trash.

Taking the stage in a haze of cigarette smoke, Gaga appeared in drag, wearing her simplest costume yet: just a blazer, a white T-shirt and a greasy, male '50s pompadour wig. Looking like "Outsiders"-era Ralph Macchio (dig his mid-show tweet) and talking through her cigarette like Andrew Dice Clay, Gaga introduced herself as Joe Calderone and delivered a rambling homily celebrating the now-humdrum merits of Lady Gaga -- how "crazy" she is, how wild her fashion is, what a big star she is. She's a singer and musician, but she never praised her own singing or musicianship. Welcome to Music Television, kids!

Gaga then sat at the piano and performed the tuneful but cliché-ridden ballad "You and I," featuring a guest solo by the only guitarist who could comfortably take the stage with such an out-sized personality: Queen's Brian May.

Kanye West and Jay-Z were the next mega-stars on stage -- an 11th-hour announcement intended to cause more of a stir than it actually did. Like their performance.

Strutting down a long tunnel, while enough pyro blazed behind them to make a liability lawyer cry, the pair -- they've asked to be called The Throne, and no one's obliging them -- eventually emerged in front of a large U.S. flag and finished barking their way indecipherably through "Otis," the Redding-sampling single from their tepid new collaboration. At least someone was excited: Security appeared to tackle a stage-jumper.

The rest of the telecast was awkward, peppered with lame introductions, limp comedy sketches designed solely for consumption on YouTube and a sneak peak at a hyped sci-fi movie.

Here are a few memorable moments from Sunday night's VMAs, some of them even musical:

-- Not long after her powerful performance at Chicago's Riviera Theatre in May, Adele canceled her tour due to laryngitis. Sunday night, while other artists put on the biggest show they could, Adele stood stock still in front of a lone piano and performed the ballad "Someone Like You." With a worried expression and a slightly shaky voice, she eventually warmed into the vocal powerhouse that's made "21" the year's biggest seller thus far. Her ovation was deserved.

Get More: 2011 VMA, Music, Adele

-- Lady Gaga kept returning to the stage in character. First, Gaga/Joe introduced a brief tribute to Britney Spears, recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award (the VMA equivalent of a lifetime achievement nod). Gaga had to yell at the crowd to "stand the f--- up!" because no one seemed impressed. Spears and Gaga then played with ye olde VMA cliché, acting as if they were going to kiss. Gaga, however, remained on stage, mooning at her idol and hogging the microphone. She also accepted her award for best female video, still in the wig and talking in Joe voice about the glories of Gaga. Strange, but not good-Gaga strange.

-- Beyonce performed just fine -- one of the only singers who could keep modulating that many times with a smile during "Love on Top," from her new album "4" -- but her best moment was when she wrapped the song, dropped the microphone and unbuttoned her sequined jacket. She then rubbed her belly and smiled. Earlier on the black carpet, she revealed she's pregnant. Father-to-be Jay-Z laughed and hooted in the front row as Kanye slapped his back.

Get More: 2011 VMA, Music, Beyoncé

-- What's Tony Bennett doing at the VMAs? An ironic duet, perhaps? No, Bennett had the honor of being the last person to record with Amy Winehouse, who died last month in London. After a heartfelt introduction by comedian (and Mr. Katy Perry, who won video of the year) Russell Brand, Bennett paid tribute to "a true jazz artist in tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. She had the gift -- Amy had the whole gift." We watched a video of Bennett and Winehouse in the studio in March, recording "Body and Soul" for Bennett's next album of duets, before Bruno Mars performed "Valerie" live (a song by British band the Zutons, which Winehouse sang on Mark Ronson's 2007 album "Version").

-- Chris Brown dazzled viewers by taking flight during his performance, literally. Brown first fancy-stepped his way through an odd playlist of other people's hits (Wu-Tang Clan, Nirvana), then launched into his own "Beautiful People," during which a harness allowed him and two dancers to soar over the crowd in a Cirque du VMA.

-- You've heard of the dire threat to women, gays and grandmas posed by the controversial rap group Odd Future? Its leader, Tyler, the Creator, looked positively boyish and gleeful as he announced Nicki Minaj for best hip-hop video. When Tyler himself won best new artist, he was utterly wholesome by MTV standards, encouraging kids to succeed and admitting to being on the verge of tears. The only naughty bits were all the bleeped curse words.

mtvvmasjessie082811.JPG-- Finally, here's to British singer Jessie J, who should get some kind of award for her efforts Sunday night. She's that poor soul who took us to commercial over and over, singing a few lines with a house band while MTV covered her up with sponsor logos and then cut her off for more ads. She sang mostly seated, too (and walked the black carpet on crutches), because she broke her foot after falling onstage at Wembley Stadium. Seriously, give her a trophy!

The VMAs aren't really about awards, either -- though one of the fan-voted awards deserves kudos this year. A few weeks before the awards, MTV announced a new category: best video with a message.

No doubt a marketing move aimed at the nation's slacktivists, the nominees included such social crusaders as Katy Perry ("Firework"), Taylor Swift ("Mean") and Eminem ("Love the Way You Lie"). Most were ditties fresh from the year's laudable anti-bullying, "It Gets Better" bandwagons, including the nominee from Chicago-area punks Rise Against, "Make It Stop (September's Children)."

Lady Gaga won the trophy for this new category, for her loud and proud "Born This Way" video. (Gaga/Joe, while accepting another award during the telecast, acknowledged the other artists present as added: "Every video they've got has a f---ing message!") The network, however, thought so much of this new category and celebrating social communication in pop music that they inaugurated it ... in the offscreen pre-telecast.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on August 28, 2011 10:47 PM.

Music reviews: Chicago's Fruit Bats, Noise by Numbers, Alkaline Trio, Skysaw, Laureates and more was the previous entry in this blog.

North Coast Festival winds down summer with David Guetta, Wiz Khalifa, Common, Fatboy Slim, more is the next entry in this blog.

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