Critics' Notebook: Were the MTV Video Music Awards a sign that pop is getting serious again? [UPDATED]
Here's a prediction, inspired by the annual festival of hype and cheap humor known as the MTV Video Music Awards. In 2011, pop will take a major turn toward the pursuit of depth.
The high and low points of Sunday's chapter in VMA history indicated that pop's top artists are sobering up from the long party the past decade represented, when exhibitionism and forced frivolousness served an innovative but unabashedly bling-oriented pop scene. Despite the network-mandated omnipresence of the cast of Jersey Shore and host Chelsea Handler's steely-eyed tackiness, the mood among the artists featured and honored was fairly earnest.
The official ceremony opened with Eminem and Rihanna performing their smash "Love the Way You Lie, " a perfect example of how pop can tackle important subjects (domestic violence, in this case) and still be commmercially viable. Its runaway winner, Lady Gaga, used her time before the microphone to promote her favorite political cause, gay rights. Clown-coquette Katy Perry never really went bananas.
Only another year of music unfolding will show whether the mist of maturity wafting through the Nokia Theatre is a sign that pop is heading into a period when artists seek to make big statements within songs that will endure -- and if this pendulum swing will produce the same amount of truly fun, sonically risky music that this crowd has given us in its salad days.
The past decade has been a great one for proving that pop's lighter side can have depth and meaning, too. Contrary to what some naysayers declare -- that pop now is nothing but cotton candy, all sugar and air -- the mainstream has offered real innovation, along with plenty of pleasure. Women have gained important ground; producers like RedOne, Gaga's man from Morocco, and Max Martin's Scandinavian heirs, have made the scene more international. (Shakira helped, too.) New technologies have defeated stale guitar-god ideas about what makes music powerful and "real."
Yet along with these changes has come that lip-licking, nervous hedonism can push earnestness and strong individualism too far to the margins.
Not that pop doesn't have its share of young visionaries, even during this era of android virtuosity and hit songs immediately turned into jingles for Target. Nicki Minaj and will.i.am, performing in polyethylene costumes during the VMAs pre-show program, showed how what most considered too weird when Grace Jones first stalked the stage is now the starting block for musical adventurers.
Jones hasn't always been charitable about her obvious inheritor, Lady Gaga, but the younger diva's VMAs sweep should give her doubters a chance to admit that she is not just a passing fancy. Gaga's rise has been exciting, in part, because she keeps maturing as an artist. She's learned to use her outlandish costumes to express herself, rather than just be owned by them. Her music has improved. And her willingness to speak out as a champion of gay rights and non-traditional lifestyles in general places her within a real community, not just a marketing plan.
Gaga honored the late designer Alexander McQueen with her VMAs couture, and made a strong statement by bringing several ex-military personnel affected by the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy along as her entourage. Accepting the night's ultimate prize, for Best Video of the Year for her "Bad Romance" clip, the winner of eight trophies sang a few bars of the gay disco anthem "Born This Way" as a means of announcing the title of her new album. Just a day after September 11, when tensions surrounding religious intolerance reached a frightening pitch, Gaga's call for compassion enforced the astounding fact that the moment's biggest pop star is a bona-fide radical.
Eminem is a veteran compared to Lady Gaga; his current success inspires because of his renewed work ethic and clear-headed sense of purpose. He jetted off to New York to prepare for his upcoming Yankee Stadium shows with Jay-Z before he could accept his awards -- a characteristic move for this all-business superstar.
The dominance of Eminem and Gaga wasn't the only sign that even at this campiest and crudest awards show, earnestness is coming back in fashion. At moments, its seemed that two programs were being badly edited together -- one featuring ill-advised, racially tinged humor from Handler and way too much homage paid to those Jersey Shore knuckleheads, and the other determined by the musicians, who came to dance, impress, and (mostly) sing.
Yes, some lip-synched, a safeguard often taken during awards shows. But many did not, and those who stood out -- Florence Welch of the English alt-rock band Florence and the Machine; Mary J. Blige duetting with the rapper Drake; Hayley Williams, performing with the rapper B.o.B. and her band Paramore -- pushed their voices till they nearly cracked. The night's Big Rock Moment, often a drag during pop-focused awards shows like the VMAs, also worked well: debuting an electronica-tinged new anthem in front of a glittering Griffith Observatory, Linkin Park presented itself as ready for battle.
The night's most crucial performances were, of course, by Kanye West and Taylor Swift, the players in the incident that marred (and made) last year's VMAs show. Stealing the microphone from the country music valedictorian during her acceptance speech, West made a fool of himself; he's spent the last year doing penance. His gaffe hurt his career, might have helped hers, and lent the VMAs semi-serious news value.
He and Swift gave MTV more than the network deserved this year by agreeing to resolve their differences musically, turning themselves into willing pawns in a cynical grab for publicity. Yet how each responded says a lot about what it means to be a serious pop star right now.
Swift, made up to look like Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief," strummed a National guitar and never once cracked a smile as she sang "Innocent," a ballad based on her encounter with West. It was a somber attempt to forgive her offender, but it fell horribly flat. With lines like, "It's okay, life is a tough crowd/32 and still growing up now," the song came across as more condescending than empathetic. And with her small, wavery voice, Swift couldn't muster the drama that would have made it transcendent. This consummate professional has rarely seemed so uncomfortably young.
West did something harder to accept, but more interesting to contemplate: He confronted his mistake in a song that begged for forgiveness on the surface, but on another level, made the case for flawed character as a motivator for great art. His show-closing performance of the new "Runaway" began with West in a favorite position, alone in the center of a vast stage. He played a tiny beat machine, radiating isolation. Then he turned his problem into a party.
The spareness of West's song quickly gave way to a sunny tune reminiscent of early 1970s soul, and an extremely off-color chorus in which West both made cruel fun of himself and implied that fools such as he do play an important role in keeping art interesting. Unlike the grim and visibly nervous Swift, West smiled as he lacerated himself with epithets.
His swagger was Shakespearean, both bold and a little bit tragic; it was Sinatra-esque, stunningly skillful, but mean. The rapper Pusha T from the excellent Virginia Beach duo the Clipse joined West for a verse; ballerinas in pink tutus moved behind them, a symbol of the stereotype of innocence that Swift can embody but which is not accessible to black men such as these performers. Eventually returning to his little instrument, West used it to distort his voice, as if to show that he still remembers the dangers of speaking (or singing) more plainly.
"Still an Innocent" and "Runaway" were stunts staged for this hokiest of awards shows. But they were also real musical efforts -- not skits, not thrown-up scaffolding upon which to hang a dance routine. This is where pop seems to be going right now: back to the drawing board, where an artist confronts the basics -- what resonates both within and in the world at large -- to make music that moves as well as amuses. It's a growing process, one that, with luck, won't cause this pop-smart generation to lose the light step of youth.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Kanye West at MTV's Video Music Awards. Credit: Matt Sayles / AP.