Soon after Maroon 5's Adam Levine called the Video Music Awards the "one day a year when MTV pretends to still care about music," the show had a chance to prove him wrong with a VMAs more packed with music history than any in recent memory.
It still wasn't too convincing. Maybe just convincing enough to continue, for another year, the farce that MTV still has anything to do with music. Which is the whole point of the VMAs, right?
The theme was time travel, or something, and lots of artists took it seriously: Lady Gaga brought up Brian May, whose song with Queen, "Radio Gaga," inspired her name. Jay-Z and Kanye West invoked Otis Redding, not super successfully. And Gaga paid tribute to grizzled music veteran Britney Spears.
But here's the thing: No one, with the exception of Gaga, Adele, a pregnant Beyonce and a couple of others, seemed that into it. Usually it doesn't matter: No one expects anything but perfunctory performances from the VMAs (or Grammys, or any other awards show). But usually MTV lucks into — or creates — some kind of outrageous moment distracting enough to make us forget about the music.
Also read: Lady Gaga's 'You and I': Meet Jo Calderone
Not this year. The only moments worth talking about were musical ones, and there were only a few of those: Adele's stunning number, Gaga's amusing schtick as her alter ego Chris Gaines — sorry, Jo Calderone — and Beyonce's joyous number, performed moments after she announced her pregnancy on the red carpet.
But the show couldn't generate a shock. Britney demurred on kissing Calderone. Cloris Leachman's pairing with the "Jersey Shore" women was boring and irritating. West was a complete gentleman.
Here's how it went down, in chronological order:
9 p.m.: Lady Gaga kicked off the VMAs by critiquing herself in the guise of Calderone, a kind of 50s greaser dude who claims to have dated her. We wondered last week how she could go weirder than a meat dress or showing up in an egg, and we guess she sort of did.
She also wins over the traditional rock types by performing with May. Dave Grohl looks psyched. Britney Spears, who goes on to receive a special award and the first prize of the night, looks confused.
9:23: Jay-Z and West — making his semi-triumphant return to the VMAs — perform "Otis" from their new "Watch the Throne" collaboration. It never really takes off because the song doesn't work. It's a boring loop with barely any beat, and Otis Redding, being dead, doesn't get to do his best work. Kanye, Jay and Otis Redding: Three great tastes that don't work well together.
9:27: Foo Fighters win best rock video, despite MTV not playing a Foo Fighters video in 37 years.
9:36: Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly reprise their roles as the Beastie Boys from that one video. Ferrell thinks the Beastie Boys pronounce the future "the futah," but they're actually pretty good about not adopting fake rappy accents. Aside: I don't quite get this whole routine. In 1986 it would make sense to imagine the Beasties growing up to look like Ferrell, Black and Reilly, but don't the Beasties look a lot better than these guys today, despite being the same age?
9:48: Katy Perry and Kanye West win an award, and she makes a joke about him interrupting. He doesn't. And so the awards remain boring.
10 p.m.: Adele beats every other performer at the VMAs with a giant stick. She seems not to understand that the theme of tonight's show, so far, is phoning it in. Breathtaking.
10:12: Justin Bieber accepts an award wearing intellectual-looking glasses. He ups the ante by thanking not only God but Jesus. That's on some Elvis-type s— right there.
10:18: Chris Brown embraces the time-travel-or-whatever-it-is theme by doing a dance medley of mostly other people's songs, including Wu Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The VMAs become vaguely fun. Then he starts flying, which is fine. He starts off standing in front of bars, which might be a grim commentary on his violent past. Or just because they look cool.
10:28: Gaga presents Spears the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award in her Calderone suit. She says Brit-Brit used to influence her when she would play open mics in New York, presumably referring to Britney's folk years. She also says she used to have a poster of Britney on her wall and touch herself. Sexual tension thus established, she stands around expectedly when Britney takes the stage, but a kiss is not to be. "I've done that already," Spears explains.
Oh, we almost forgot: As if to taunt everyone who complained about Britney's outfits when she was 16, the VMAs fill the stage with prepubescent girls dressed up in Spears' various sultry costumes. Check back tomorrow for our outraged-parents story.
10:30: Beyonce, who announced her pregnancy on the red carpet, sings a buoyantly happy song. Her hair looks amazing, the dance steps are cute and pregnancy-approved, and her and her backup singers' outfits are straight out of "The Five Heartbeats." We defy you to say anything bad about her. No, seriously, don't.
10:40: MTV shows how much it cares about heart and stuff with an obligatory appearance by local-band-made-good Young the Giant.
10:55: Cloris Leachman and the "Jersey Shore" ladies do a little routine about how she's not a grenade and no one her age knows who they are and oh my God people of all ages can say bad words on TV.
10:59: Lady Gaga accepts an award and says "you were born this way" whether you're gay, straight, bi or transgendered. It's a nice moment.
11:06: Russell Brand doesn't sugar coat it in a memorial to Amy Winehouse. He says he thought of her as "a daft dopey person" and couldn't believe when he heard her voice "coming from that crazy person. A person that I just knew that would walk away stinking of the booze. Just a loopy loose cannon person." Then he realized she was "a genius."
11:10: Tony Bennett compares Winehouse to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, as did Brand. Then he plays one of her recordings from March — a duet they did together — and she sounds devastating.
11:15: Bruno Mars does a lively cover of Winehouse's cover of The Zutons' "Valerie." He's pompadoured and in full '50s mode. Wait: Between Calderone and this, is doo-wop a thing? The VMAs are really trying to prove they know their music history this year, aren't they?
11:22: The evening reaches its first climax with a much-hyped preview of "The Hunger Games." It looks cool. But doesn't have much to do with music.
11:24: The award for Last Big Award of the Night That Goes to the Person We Promised in Advance to Give It To to Ensure She Would Show Up goes to Katy Perry. Kidding. It's Video of the Year. She has a yellow cube on her head, and this is her second Moonman.
11:30: Lil Wayne performs a heavily autotuned ballad wearing crazy leopard-skinned pants. Following the VMAs, MTV will premiere the new series "I Just Want My Pants Back" — but it's more like David Lee Roth wants his pants back. Ohhhhburn Lil Wayne.
Kidding. The performance is good enough to make me change the headline of this story from "VMAs: MTV Pretends to Care About Music, Badly" to "VMAs: MTV Pretends to Care About Music, Adequately." Meaning it got better as it went on. I guess.