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2015 MTV VMAs: 'Beefs,' Kanye, and why the video matters

Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj at the 2015 <i>VMAs</i>

Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj at the 2015 VMAs

Update: Apparently the Nicki-Miley beef was "100 percent real," according to MTV. Adjust your lives accordingly. 

Last night’s MTV Video Music Awards made for a bizarre telecast. By now you’ve heard about Kanye West’s rant, Nicki Minaj “calling” host Miley Cyrus “out,” and everything from nip slips to Bieber tears. When digested as trending topics and soundbites, it’s easy to process any MTV Video Music Awards as “the year X,Y and Z happened." But it’s a whole different undertaking to look at a complete broadcast itself and deconstruct what’s been laid at your feet to represent the year in art of the music video.

We actually watched the entire endeavor from preshow to main event, and even having spent three hours with the channel, the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards are still a bit of a challenge to unpack.
The Significance
It was one of those middling years, which we really haven’t had in quite a while. There’s wasn’t a continuous streak of great performances and memorable speeches like the 2011 and 2013 editions. However, it wasn’t largely forgettable like 2012’s and 2014’s either.

If the show, which is the final act of MTV President Van Toffler who is stepping down after 28 years with the network, had one flaw, it’s perhaps trying too hard to manufacture an unforgettable “VMA Moment.” But despite the transparency of their ambitions, we do have to give MTV credit for trying, and not just because putting Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj together is a powderkeg waiting to go off.

The Preshow
Believe it or not, the best performance of the night didn’t happen on the award show. It happened during the preshow, as Nick Jonas, in an impressive one-shot camera take, performed “Levels” while simulating the act of attending the VMA red carpet, accompanied by dancing moon-women.
Along with the best possible use of Kelly Osbourne (dancing around her but not letting her close to the mic to say something racist), Jonas legit did a great job and maintained composure enough afterward to award two tickets to the show to some lucky fan, who then immediately attempted to take a selfie with him.

The Location and Product Placement
In terms of venue and atmosphere, the Microsoft Theater crowd was by far the livest audience the show’s had in quite a long time and felt like they were there to really be a part of the show — not just to Instagram things to look at later. The promotional tie-ins were also toned way, waaay down from recent years, save Sway letting us know on the preshow that Nick Jonas was brought to us by State Farm.

The Performances
The show itself started with an extensive montage of Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift dueting, then cut to the outdoor downtown Los Angeles performance of Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Eric Nally. While Macklemore automatically wins points from the hip-hop crowd for having Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel cameo in the performance, the only thing more inexplicably funny about part of the live choreography involving Macklemore’s body being dragged on the ground is how the visual strikingly worked.

But the biggest statement about these openings is how much Nicki, Taylor, and Macklemore almost shot-for-shot recreated the songs' music videos. This set the tone for the night to actually be a celebration of the art of the music video. But as the opening credits ran, MTV took an uncharacteristic look back at all the previous memorable Video Music Awards performances from Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, KISS, Madonna, and yes, Miley Cyrus, giving a nod to the show’s rich history.
Unsurprising as that may sound to readers who haven’t caught the show in a few years, MTV really hasn’t looked back at its history since the network’s 20th anniversary in 2001. Even their 30th anniversary was only mentioned on MTV2, and the 30th VMAs made no reference to the significance of it hitting the three-decade mark.

Whether this was a nod to Toffler or just something Miley wanted to do isn’t for certain. But the vibe for this first half hour really felt like the pre-internet MTV of old and not in a nostalgia-pandering way, but rather an organic harnessing of the energy that made those moments special implemented into the climate of today.

Elsewhere, the live performances were either too short or poorly ordered. The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” would have been a great minimalist number, but it went on second before the show could have really used it as a refreshing breather, instead leaving its most memorable mark as setting up for his commercial with John Travolta.

Justin Bieber’s return to the stage utilized the admittedly great set design and capabilities of the Microsoft Theater for “Where Are U Now” and “What Do You Mean?" But it culminated with his strange ascension and then tears, while Miley Cyrus (who apparently really, really likes sex) hit on him from across the stage and quickly overshadowed the otherwise outstanding technical feat.

Miley Cyrus, the Host
Miley Cyrus’ hosting duties were middle-of-the-road. Not as enjoyable as her Saturday Night Live run, the jokes and banter seldom diverged from “I’m a former child star who loves sex AND pot.” Not that we’re knocking her proclivity for either, but given she has legit comedic chops, she could have had her talents showcased a lot better. 
The Kanye West Moment
Which brings us to Kanye West receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Say what you will about Kanye as a person. But in terms of advancing the art and popularity of the music video, he’s made some incredible clips over the past 12 years, so it’s hard to object to his winning the most coveted lifetime achievement award for videos that there is.

While the Video Vanguard performance has been a highlight the past two years, with extensive performances from Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, what we got from Kanye was a whole different beast. Beginning with a short film celebrating Kanye that was, even by Kanye at an awards show standards, pretty pretentious. We were then treated to an extensive rant that culminated in West announcing his run for the presidency in 2020.
Typically, when Kanye’s impassioned rants hit the airwaves and are subjected for ridicule, the focus is on how he sounds rather than what he’s saying, which often makes perfect sense when read. Last night, Kanye was largely incoherent, jumping from topic to topic, drifting from megalomaniacal god-complex Kanye (claiming his 2009 bum-rushing of Taylor Swift was him dying for the sins of artists having an opinion) to needlessly reckless-talking Kanye (outing Justin Timberlake for him not losing the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2006 to Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way) to cheaply popping-the-crowd Kanye (“listen to the kids!”).

Kanye wrote off his behavior, good and bad, over the years, based on how he “doesn’t understand” award shows. Or does he? While we didn’t get a musical performance, we (likely unintentionally) got a career retrospective of Kanye West the media figure in this one speech, announcing his presidential run as presenter Taylor Swift and wife Kim Kardashian looked on.

Kanye’s speech was like the kid in class who has to give a presentation on a book you know he didn’t read, but he’s so clearly trying to convince you he’s read it that you remember it all these years later for his efforts.

So what were the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards?
While it will probably be remembered as the year Kanye went full-Kanye, the telecast has a few just as significant points.

While we did get the “unexpected” moments of Miley Cyrus’ nipple slip, Nicki Minaj mock-threatening Miley Cyrus, and Rebel Wilson wearing a shirt with the words “FUCK THE STRIPPER POLICE” written on it, more than anything the night was about music videos. Among the most memorable acceptance speeches was Taylor Swift's, when she brought Video of the Year winner “Bad Blood's” director, Joseph Kahn, on stage with her twice and gave him the floor to speak.

Given how none of the technical categories made it to the night’s main award show broadcast, Kahn’s words combined with the performances cuing their videos for inspiration was a strong reminder that music videos still matter. As Dire Straits said in their iconic Video Music Award winner “Money for Nothing,” “That’s the way you do it.”